How Much Meditation Changes the Brain?

Posted on: October 23rd, 2019

Mindfulness meditation is a practice, rather than a seeking of perfection. Like anyone who practices improving their art form, with time, their chosen discipline becomes easier. Meditation is not necessarily meant to be easy or difficult, with little practice, or even years of practice. However, according to a study discussed on The Conversation in an article by Peter Malinowski of Liverpool John Moores University, “Practicing mindfulness meditation for ten minutes a day improves concentration and the ability to keep information active in one’s mind, a function known as ‘working memory’. The brain achieves this by becoming more efficient, literally requiring fewer brain resources to do these tasks.”

Just ten minutes a day is all that is required to gain the cognitive benefits of meditation. One of the greatest challenges posed to beginning meditation practitioners is the difficulty in staying present, maintaining concentration on the breath, and quieting the mind. The truth is- this is an ongoing challenge for anyone practicing meditation, for the rest of their lives. Some days, the mind is quiet and easy to manage. Other days, the mind is busy, bustling, and difficult to manage. Accepting, without attachment, the ebbs, and flows of the mind, is part of meditation practice in and of itself.

Improvement in working memory as a result of meditation means that meditation itself gets easier over time, asking less and less of the brain to get quiet, find a mindful moment, and create synaptic, structural internal peace. Malinowski writes, “It is curious that simply focusing on the breath in a balanced way can have such an effect on concentration and working memory. We think this is happening because meditation is a form of brain network training, where the same brain networks are repeatedly activated and so become more efficient. It seems that this form of meditation targets core brain networks, interconnected areas of the brain that work together and play a key role in many cognitive tasks.”

The more that we can turn to a meditation practice, the better our ability to meditate becomes. All we need is 10 minutes a day to participate in a radical activity that actively restructures our brain for the better, improving our ability to function during the day, retain memory information, and stay more present.

Getting Present: How It Helps Recovery

Regardless of whether we are in recovery from addiction to drugs and/or alcohol, staying grounded in the present moment is a difficult challenge. Meditation has become a worldwide phenomenon for a reason- everyone can benefit from just ten minutes a day of focused, present connection to the breath.

There is no one way to describe or explain what being present means, or how exactly it is that we get present and stay present. A better approach is to get an understanding of what it means to not be present- like when you drive home from work and get from point A to point B without paying hardly an ounce of attention. If you were present, you might have noticed road signs, flowers on the hillside, or songs on the radio. Instead, you were mentally somewhere else, though you were physically in the car. You were likely doing one of two things or a combination of both: ruminating over something in the past or fantasizing over something in the future. Keeping the mind elsewhere keeps you from being fully present, at this moment, here, and now, right where you need to be.

For those who are recovering from addiction, being present can make the difference between undergoing difficult cravings as a result of thinking about the past, like active using, or thinking about the future, like “never using again”. Rather than engaging in a chronic cycle of difficult thought processes, those in recovery can stay present- taking life on one breath, one moment at a time. According to Malinowski’s research, this means that staying present and meditating won’t just get easier- life itself becomes a little more manageable as the brain improves its cognitive functioning.

Parts of The Brain Changed

Meditation doesn’t just change the way we think or function. Structurally, meditation changes different parts of our brain, which then affect how the parts of our brain function. Here are the different parts of the brain changed by meditation:

  • Prefrontal Cortex: Though meditation has been found to improve functioning’s in various parts of the prefrontal cortex, it is the rostro lateral part of the prefrontal cortex which is most profound. This area of the brain is responsible for self-awareness where the ability to partake in introspection takes place.
    • Insular Cortex: Whereas the prefrontal cortex holds the processing of self-awareness, like how one thinks, the insular cortex is home to the main cortical centers which help us process physical awareness.
    • Hippocampus: The hippocampus is responsible for memory and translating the input of memory into emotional responses.
    • Anterior Cingulate Cortex/Mid-Cingulate Cortex: Especially affected by addiction, these areas of the brain are where we gain our ability to regulate our feelings, focus, and decision making- the epicenter of self-control.

Meditation Takes Us Out of Self

Addiction is often criticized and shamed as a “selfish” illness which causes someone to chronically act “self-centered”. What addiction does to the brain and the body creates myopia of survival- a self-focused ecosystem which sees using drugs and alcohol as the only way to survive. Reprogramming the brain to take on the consideration of a world outside of the self is a primary focus of addiction treatment. Meditation lends progress to getting out of self and cultivating greater universal connectivity.

There is a part of the brain called the “DMN”, the default mode network, which is where all our distraction takes place- specifically when our brain goes wandering into thoughts about ourselves. Referred to as the “distracted mind”, our default mode engages when we’re a bit mindless- meaning, we aren’t particularly focused on any thought or task. Focusing the mind is part of the meditation practice by bringing attention to the breath, the body, or a repeated mantra. Bringing the mind to a greater state of awareness brings the mind to awareness outside of itself, helping us to quite self-focused, wandering thoughts and put the energy of the brain into another focus. With practice, as the brain learns to meditate, the brain learns to more quickly come back into focus when it goes wandering off.

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