Many attempts to meditate have left me uninspired and restless, always wriggling about trying to find what it is that creates this sense of peace and a prolonged life. Yet the other day a yoga teacher told me I didn’t have to do anything; it’s just about sitting, maybe starting for five minutes at first and just sitting with the pain. After all, tolerating pain during sitting can lead to tolerating pain in life. For the first time this resonated with me and I was able to sit a little longer.
An increasing number of scientific studies looking at the effects of meditation on the brain are emerging, with significant findings promoting regular practice.
Areas and connections that have been observed to change include the medial prefrontal cortex, which is involved in perspective taking; the lateral prefrontal cortex, involved in modulating emotional responses and overriding behavior; the insular cortex, which modulates subjective and bodily sensations or “gut feelings;” and the amygdala, which is involved in fear processing and response.
Before meditation there are strong connections between areas such as the insular cortex and amygdala, suggesting that when something is felt in the body, we can very quickly assume there is a problem and therefore become stuck in a negative thought cycle. However, meditation has been shown to alter these neural connections, so that sensations can merely be observed without judgment or attributions.
The amygdala itself has been found to actually reduce in size after 8 weeks of meditation, with less perceived stress and a reduction in anxiety.
After just 4 weeks of meditation, one study found that white matter in the brain became denser and myelin increased, which led to higher brain signalling and protection of neurons. Changes in the anterior cingulate cortex, an area that regulates behavior and is impaired in those with depression, dementia, schizophrenia, and ADHD, were also found.
Overall, there is a wealth of evidence to show that with practice calming the mind we can in fact live what appears to be a much more centered life. After what could be a rather short amount of time in the long scheme of things, we can alter how we experience ourselves, reduce stress and negative habitual thought patterns, and increase feelings of empathy and wellbeing.