Your Brain on Meditation

Do you still think Mindfulness and meditation are fringe ideas?  In case you’ve missed it, they’ve appeared on the cover of Time magazine, in Forbesand even on 60 Minutes. How did they become so popular in our culture?

Well, it turns out, all of those meditators were right when they claimed all of  the wonderful changes meditation brings and it’s now backed up by data.   Today’s Science can measure the impact meditation has on the body and the brain, and the results are remarkable. Here are just a few of those results:

1. Meditation literally rewires our brains.

Did you know that fMRI machines (functional magnetic resonance imaging), allow us to watch our brains in real time!?  Well, they can, and that’s really cool.

Scientists used to think our brains developed only up to a certain age and that’s all you got. Now Science knows that the brain is actually dynamic, not static. This means we can intentionally cultivate the brain we want and grow brand-spanking new brain cells (neurogenesis) and forge new neural pathways (neuroplasticity). We also know that our experiences can cause the brain to change itself.

This is GOOD STUFF. It means we can literally change that broken record we’ve been playing in our heads!

Scientists have shown us that, with meditation, we can reroute the neural pathways that regulate our emotions, thoughts, and reactions. We don’t have to take the same old freeways to anxiety, fear, and anger; instead we can choose to visit compassion, gratitude, and joy.  By practicing meditation, we are making a conscious effort to build new pathways so that we can reprogram our brains’ automatic response.  Sounds easy enough, but it’s not easy!  How hard do you think it would be to react graciously when being cut off in traffic rather than getting angry?

2. Meditation turns our genes on or off.

Epigenetics is the study of how genes are regulated and expressed.  Each  of us is born with our own set of DNA, but genes are more specific and real-time than DNA.  Your genes can be expressed or suppressed according to outside stimulus. This makes lifestyle choices much more important that you might think.  Meditation is one POWERHOUSE of a lifestyle choice.

Having a mother that showers you with love and makes you feel safe, for example, activates different genes in you than a mother who was neglectful can literally alters the way your genes express themselves for the rest of your life.

The good news is brought to us by neuroscientist, Richard Davidson, who recently showed that gene expression can change with meditation. In blood samples taken from long-term meditators after a full day of meditation, he found evidence of a change in how genes get expressed.

This study showed that just eight hours of meditation is enough to create a change in how your genes express themselves!  This is a really big deal for those of us who didn’t have the perfect childhood….I think that might be all of us!  Now we can do something to rewire those negative beliefs that are driving some of the negative gene expression we may have.

3. Meditation can make us handle stress better.

To figure out how meditation helps us deal with stress, this radical study actually tortured meditators!

One part of the study involved inflicting pain upon long-term meditators.  Scientists created a device that that caused an intense burning sensation on the wrist without causing physical harm.  Who wouldn’t want to sign up for that study?!

To really mess with the participants in the study , a bell was rung to warn them that the pain was coming. The bell let them know that in 10 seconds they would be “zapped”, after which they would have a little rest.

If they still had any participants left after the first round, the bell, “zapping”, and then the rest period were administered, brain activity of both meditators and non-meditators was monitored. As you might imagine, the scientists found that, in the non-meditators, the bell warning them that the painful zap was coming, their brains went wild. All of the same pain circuits lit up before the pain was inflicted, as if the pain were actually happening.

Upon hearing JUST the warning bell and anticipating the pain, their brains responded as if they were already in pain. 

Equally interesting, the study showed that the pain circuits of non-meditators stayed active even during the following rest period. To put that another way, their brains were still “upset” even after the pain was completely gone.  I think I’d be pretty upset too.

However, Long-term meditators’ brain activity remained very calm following the warning bell before they received the painful zap.  they were also able to get back to  this peaceful state quickly during the rest period.

So let’s get this straight:  The meditators really only felt pain and distress WHILE the pain was happening, while the non-meditators suffered distress before, during and after the painful zap.

Moral of the story:  Meditators experience less suffering than those who don’t meditate. Not only do they suffer less, they recover more quickly than those who do not meditate.

This is some eye-opening evidence here.  Meditation isn’t just some hippy-dippy thing, it’s a mental practice that is scientifically proven to physically alter your brain, regulate your gene expression, and calm your brain during times of suffering.  Imagine being able to rewrite the negative thinking and self-talk that plagues you, being able to bounce back from stressful situations, even physical pain, quicker.  This sounds like a life where more happiness, gratitude, and peacefulness can grow.  Ready to start practicing yet?

Here is a 10 minute, very basic guided meditation.  No, you do not need to sit like the woman in the photo.

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