How Meditation Changes the Brain
A group of neuroscientists wanted to figure out whether years of meditation had changed the brain of an expert monk. Led by Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, they connected 256 electrodes to a Tibetan monk named Matthew Ricard, who had given up a career in science and spent decades meditating in the Himalayas. Dr. Davidson and his colleagues were astonished by Ricard’s brain signature, having never seen anything like it before. The activity in his left prefrontal cortex (responsible for subduing negative emotions) and abnormal gamma wave levels (suggesting signs of bliss) led them to dub him “the happiest man in the world.”
But this wasn’t an isolated finding. As it turns out experienced meditators across the board show fascinating improvements to their brains. And even novices who learn meditation, practicing over the course of a few weeks, begin to see changes take place.
Key Changes in the Brains of Meditators
Research has shown that there are several ways that meditation can change the brain’s structure and function:
- Enlarges the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for rational decision-making. Studies have shown that meditation increases grey matter (brain cells) in this region.1
- Shrinks the amygdala. The amygdala is a key brain structure known as the emotional or fear center of the brain. Smaller amygdalae found in more mindful people are associated with greater emotional control.2
- Thickens the hippocampus. This hippocampus is key for learning and memory. Just a few weeks of mindfulness meditation practice increased the size of this brain region.3
- Increases overall grey matter. Grey matter, brain cell bodies important for processing power and linked to intelligence, seem to increase with meditation training.4
- Enhances high-amplitude gamma brainwave activity. High-frequency gamma waves correlate with states of heightened awareness and bliss. Long-term meditators have been shown to have more gamma wave activity both before and during meditation.5
It’s important to note that it can take many years to produce these more permanent changes in brain structure. Yet some of the studies mentioned above showed changes starting to occur after just a few weeks of meditation practice.
It’s incredible how quickly the brain adapts when you use it in novel ways. By repeatedly applying their attention in a particular way, meditators can build an improved brain bit by bit.
This is not unlike the athlete who can shape their body with the repeated exercise of certain muscles in the gym. Our brains are very similar, adapting to how they are used. The consensus among neuroscientists just a couple decades ago was that the brain had stopped evolving by adulthood, but these discoveries suggest that we continue to shape our brains up until our last breath.
Recent findings demonstrating the brain’s incredible neuroplastic (the ability for the brain to reorder itself by forming new neural connections) capacity give rise to a new concept “mental fitness.” It means each of us can train the mind like a muscle through meditative exercises.
Indeed, meditation is an umbrella term, like exercise, and there are over 800 different techniques by one account, each training the mind in a unique way. Mindfulness meditation is most commonly practiced in the western world, but there are also zazen, mahamudra, vedic, loving-kindness, visualization practices, dzogchen, tonglen, mantra practices, and hundreds of others. Just as running, swimming, and tennis strengthen the body in different ways, so too do these methods of meditation.
But what is the mechanism is behind meditation’s ability to change the brain?
Meditation, a.k.a. Self-Directed Neuroplasticity
“When neurons fire together, they wire together – mental activity actually creates new neural structures… What flows through your mind sculpts your brain. Thus, you can use your mind to change your brain for the better.” – Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
Meditation is just self-directed neuroplasticity. In other words, you are directing the change of your brain by inwardly and consciously directing attention in a particular way. You’re using the mind to change the brain, like a child crafting a Playdough structure. Research has shown that the way you direct your attention and thoughts can significantly impact and change the brain’s development.
The concept of self-directed neuroplasticity means that you’re literally in control of your own evolution, responsible for the shape and function that your brain takes on. For example, if you focus hard in a concentration meditation, you will exercise the attentional networks of the brain and strengthen those neural networks. This helps explain the amazing findings mentioned above that show meditation’s ability to change your brain’s structure and function.
While meditation produces some immediate changes in neurotransmitters (altered states), with practice it also produces long-lasting structural (new connections) and even functional (entirely rearranged neural networks) changes. This re-wiring of states into more permanent traits takes consistent effort.
Self-directed neuroplasticity also helps us understand why mental training is a full-time occupation. How you use your mind regularly influences the number and strength of your synaptic connections as the brain is always evolving per your interactions with the outside world.
So if you don’t have the brain you want now, maybe it isn’t focused or full or mental energy, then the good news is that you can in fact change your brain with meditation. Although a thick hippocampus might not attract a mate, it’s a worthwhile improvement that can impact something that’s with you at all times determining your entire reality in each moment: your mind.
- Lazar, S.W., Kerr, C.E., Wasserman, R.H., Gray, J.R., Greve, D.N., Treadway, M.T., McGarvey, M., Quinn, B.T., Dusek, J.A., Benson, H., Rauch, S.L., Moore, C.I., & Fischl, B. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport, 16(17), 1893–1897. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.wnr.0000186598.66243.19
- Taren, A.A., Creswell, J.D., & Gianaros, P.J., (2013). Dispositional mindfulness co-varies with smaller amygdala and caudate volumes in community adults. PLoS One, 8(5). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23717632
- Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry research, 191(1), 36–43. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006
- Luders, E., Cherbuin, N., & Kurth, F. (2015). Forever Young(er): potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation on gray matter atrophy. Frontiers in Psychology, 5: 1551. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25653628
- Lutz, A., Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
McClintock, L. (2020). How Meditation Changes the Brain. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 30, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-meditation-changes-the-brain/