You know you should be doing it.
You heard Oprah talking about it. And your best friend. And your neighbour.
Everyone is raving about the benefits of meditation – but why?
What exactly does sitting calmly and breathing deeply while focusing on one specific thing for a set amount of time actually do to your brain?
Well, for starters, it calms down beta waves in your brain – meaning your brain stops processing information as rapidly as it normally does.
When you see an MRI scan of a brain during normal waking hours, you’ll notice it’s usually lit up with various colours – because you’re thinking about what you’re going to have for lunch, how many emails you need to send, what to bring to the party tonight, and how annoying that new girl is, among hundreds of other things.
The MRI scan of a brain during meditation is fairly monochromatic, because the brain isn’t firing in every direction – it’s quiet. You’re tuning out the constant bombardment of thoughts your brain is usually trying to deal with.
In more technical speak, it effects four particular parts of your brain in a big way.
1. Your frontal lobe – the most developed part of the brain that happens to be responsible for reasoning, self-consciousness, planning, and emotions – shuts down.
2. Your parietal lobe – the part that processes sensory information about the world around you – slows down.
3. Your thalamus – the part that controls your own senses and helps focus your attention deeper – reduces incoming information down to just the bare minimum.
4. Your reticular formation – the part that puts your brain on alert, ready to respond to incoming stimulation – is dialed down so you no longer react as strongly to the world around you.
What all this boils down to is a quiet, peaceful, happy brain that is no longer in a state of constant pinging.
When you practice daily, even just for a short amount of time, your brain learns to stay in this quieter mode even when stressful situations arise. If you suffer from anxiety, meditation is an incredible way to reduce the symptoms. The more you meditate, the less anxious you become. This is because the ME Center (also known as the medial prefrontal cortex) – the part of the brain that processes information about our own life and personal experiences – is toned down during meditation.
Normally, the neural pathways from the fear centre of the brain are strongly connected to the ME Center, leading you to feel under attack and scared when you experience something upsetting. When you mediate, this connection is weakened, and you’re more able to respond rationally to a scary situation.
Meditation also creates more grey matter in the brain. Grey matter gives us long lasting emotional stability, more positive emotions, and more focus.
As we age, the amount of grey matter in our brain naturally declines, but those who meditate tend to avoid or significantly reduce the loss of grey matter, helping prevent the negative effects of aging.
If you’re new to meditation but want to test out these myriad benefits, check out Headspace for an easy way to get started.