Like any organ or system in the body, the brain requires constant use and maintenance to keep it in tip-top condition. Good nutrition, sleep and optimal oxygenation are the minimal physical requirements, while regular mental exercise maintain strong neural connections and brain plasticity.
It’s important to note that the human brain is not simply a storage device for intelligence and memories. The different interconnected regions can work in harmony with each other, or can reinforce poor patterns of behaviour that might result in pain, mental health conditions, attention deficits, and sleep issues.
While mental puzzles and activities have their place, they are not a substitute for having worthwhile goals in life. Mental stimulation takes many forms, but the greatest satisfaction and therefore feelings of wellbeing, stem from having a greater purpose in life, (McEwen, Rockefeller University, NYC) such as helping the less fortunate, volunteering at an animal sanctuary or learning a new skill that can contribute to a dream lifestyle.
The moment that we allow ourselves to stagnate, the fewer opportunities we have to forge new nerve connections in the brain. Having goals and seeking new ways to achieve them is the true elixir of life.
Meditation can also help to reshape and repair connections that are not serving your best interests. Several studies have discovered how regular meditative practices can alter and strengthen neural connections which enhance wellbeing and dampen the effects of negative behaviour patterns.
How does meditation effect loneliness?
Take the parietal lobe for instance. This is the region of the brain that’s responsible for feeling connected to others. It gives us our sense of belonging and social closeness. In years gone by, communities were a natural part of life, with neighbours lending a hand to those in need and swapping life stories and sympathy over the garden fence. In today’s electronic world, loneliness is not just a common condition, but a rapidly expanding epidemic.
We are group animals, evolved over millions of years to forge and maintain social bonds for survival. The sense of belonging may no longer be necessary to stay alive, but the absence of social activities, or loneliness has a measurable impact on wellbeing.
Scientists publishing in the PLOS Medicine Journal studied 300,000 people looking for markers of loneliness and health. They discovered that those who had the highest quantity of close companions were not just happier, but lived 50% longer than those who reported feelings of isolation and loneliness.
When we feel lonely, the parietal lobe becomes over stimulated. It tends to result in a perpetual cycle of introspection, focusing on what we feel we are missing out on and exacerbating feelings of isolation. Through meditation practices, directed thoughts can retrain the brain to focus on sensations of the present moment, shifting the active regions to the frontal lobes. This allows the parietal lobe to shut down and cool off. With regular practice, the sense of self is drastically reduced, replaced by feelings of interconnectivity and belonging.
Right Side vs Left Side
Both sides of our brains play a crucial part in forming our personalities. One side deals with logical, analytical thinking while the other is dominated by more creative and imaginative pursuits. Together they blend to form our character traits and talents. It allows us to filter life through our own unique perception of reality.
An archaic view of neurology grouped people into two categories, those who only use their logical hemisphere and those who were solely creative. The truth is far more complex. Functional MRI scans of highly creative people show that both sides of the brain are used at once. It’s also true to say that many people tend to favour one side more than the other, strengthening connections that come easily and naturally to them at the expense of further developing the less favoured hemisphere.
What meditation can offer to those who have formed an imbalance, is an opportunity to enhance the connections between both sides. The corpus callosum is the name given to the junction of connective nerves which link the two halves together. This bridge allows for a unification of the logical, rational side to the artistic and creative areas, merging all the innate talents at your disposal.
If you’ve ever been accused of being scatty or flaky, it might help to strengthen your efficient reasoning skills. Similarly, a dyed in the wool science nerd could discover their spontaneous side by activating the hemispheric connectivity.
Meditation and depression
A study conducted at Washington University (Sheline 1999) discovered that the region of the brain called the hippocampus shrank in women suffering from clinical depression. This decrease was not by a small margin either, but in direct proportion to the number of years in which the patient had suffered.
Another study (Luders 2009) found that after only 8 weeks of meditation, the hippocampi of depressed patients had regained mass and density. This shows that no matter the severity or duration of the mental health condition, the brain has the ability to correct itself in time with the right encouragement and exercises.
The hippocampus is an S-shaped structure embedded deep inside the central area of the brain. It plays a vital role in learning, forging memories, and spatial awareness. Not only can depressive states be reversed but by increasing its size and density, you are improving your ability to learn and remember.
It’s interesting to note that damage to the hippocampus has been shown to result in hyperactivity in animals and an inability to regulate emotional responses. This is your primary evaluation centre. It takes in information from all across the brain and compares it with past experiences helping you to choose how to respond. If this region is impaired, there is a disconnect between the overload of data and what to do with it.
There is even a new suggestion that the hippocampus can influence how sensitive we are to touch, taste, sounds, and vision. If meditation can enhance this region as research suggests, we all have the ability to boost our sensory capabilities.
Meditation and compassion
The anterior insula is the region responsible for releasing happy chemicals when you do something like donate to charity or lend assistance to a total stranger. It helps to make us feel connected to others.
During meditation, the same centre is activated, encouraging you to feel compassion and empathy, while triggering an endorphin rush to your pleasure centres. It really is better to give than receive.
Meditation and emotional intelligence.
There are two patches on either side of your brain with the fancy name of temporoparietal junction, or TPJ for short. These too are part of the brain’s ability to process complex information and sense signals, allowing you to respond appropriately and improve self-awareness, motivation, conscientiousness, adaptability, emotional balance, warmth, and empathy.
A team of Spanish and German researchers, imaged the brains of 13 meditation newbies before and after 40 days of mindfulness training. Their findings were not surprising. Not only did they report a drastic reduction in feelings of anxiety and depression, but they discovered a massive improvement of brain density in their TPJs. Subjects were happier and more content after the training sessions.
Meditation and fear
Another benefit of meditation is that it shrinks the brain region responsible for fear. Millions of years of evolution has left us with an ancient compulsion to preserve ourselves at all costs. This fear mechanism has become hair-trigger over the years, prompting us to make decisions that steer us away from anything which may provoke a negative reaction. While anxiety is dialled up to the max, we avoid anything new which may enrich our lives, strengthening our fear pathways as a result.
This is our main cause of stress.
Our lives are rarely in danger, yet we behave as though every action might be our last. The more we fret, the larger the amygdala swells until stress responses become the default setting, flooding the bloodstream with fight or flight chemicals and increasing damaging inflammation.
Meditation dampens the fear feedback loop, dialling our anxiety triggers back to a level where the body can cope. As a result, the fear centre decreases in size, playing a less important role in decision making.
Meditation and higher intelligence
The front lobes of your brain are the home of higher thinking skills, complex planning, decision making, problem solving and deep thoughts. Einstein’s prefrontal cortex was densely packed and highly folded, showing how it had adapted to his perpetual thirst for solutions.
Dr Sara Lazar, a Harvard neuroscientist confirmed that experienced meditators had greatly enhanced prefrontal cortices, with increased nerve density, electrical output, thickness, and folds. This region of the brain is responsible for more than simple processing, it enables better decision making, stronger will power, higher IQ scores and less anxiety.
Meditation and sleep
The last of our regions affected by meditation is known as the gatekeeper of sleep. This relatively small area, called the pons, sits at the top of the brainstem and regulates the sleep chemical melatonin. If this area fails to function optimally, sleep patterns are disrupted and the full cycle of brain maintenance processes are disturbed.
Waste chemicals accrued during wakeful hours are left to build up in tissues, causing inflammation and triggering the start of cellular death.
It will come as no surprise that meditation increases the neural connections in the pons, the result of which is achieving a healthy balance of melatonin supporting our natural sleep-wake cycles.
Meditation and aging
Suffice to say that almost every part of our brain benefits from a few simple alterations to our thought processes achieved through regular meditative practices. The largest benefit of all I have saved until last.
Many studies have proven that overall brain density and size begins to decline with age; returning once again to the notion that stagnation and lack of mental stimulation accelerates the degree of shrinkage.
Dr Sara Lazar discovered that the frontal lobes of 40-50-year-old regular meditators was similar in density, size and connections to those seen in 20-30-year olds. In other words, meditation can slow mental decline.
The best part about these findings is that meditation costs nothing but time and patience. There are plenty of free videos and guided meditations online to get people started. All it takes is the desire to improve general wellbeing and the determination to make it as routine as your morning walk or trip to the gym.
Like most things that are good for us, meditation must become routine to halt any deterioration or old habits and negative behaviour patterns will take hold rapidly. Once added to your healthy lifestyle of good diet, regular exercise and quality sleep, mindfulness and meditation should help to take care of wellbeing and contentment long into our old age.
If you are feeling stressed right now and need a few minutes to clear your mind, why not listen to the short session recorded at the bottom of this post?