What Meditation Does to Your Brain

June 12th 2015

Laura Donovan

Meditation can be challenging if you have a particularly active mind, but once you successfully do it, your brain could change for the better. The benefits of meditation on brain behavior have been seen for a long time, for example a study done by UCLA that shows long-term meditation may help preserve the brain during aging.

A new study may show even more benefits. Harvard Medical School neuroscientist Sara Lazar detailed the benefits of meditation in a recent interview with the Washington Post, saying she was initially skeptical of mindfulness meditation practices until she started doing yoga, which entails meditation, and became more relaxed.

"The yoga teacher made all sorts of claims, that yoga would increase your compassion and open your heart. And I’d think, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m here to stretch,'" Lazar told the publication. "But I started noticing that I was calmer. I was better able to handle more difficult situations. I was more compassionate and open hearted, and able to see things from others’ points of view."

Lazar and other researchers went on to conduct two studies on meditation and the brain, concluding that a seasoned meditator has heightened senses.

"We found long-term meditators have an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex," Lazar said. "Which makes sense. When you’re mindful, you’re paying attention to your breathing, to sounds, to the present moment experience, and shutting cognition down. It stands to reason your senses would be enhanced. We also found they had more gray matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and executive decision making."

For the second research paper, Lazar and her team invited a group of non-meditators to participate in an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program to see how their brains changed after the program's conclusion.

At the end of the program, Lazar observed that the non-meditating group experienced thickening in four regions of the brain: the "left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation, [the] temporo parietal junction, or TPJ, which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion, the posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self relevance, [and] the Pons, where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced."

The amygdala, which is controls the brain's flight or fight syndrome and is important for anxiety, stress, and fear, got smaller.

Types of meditation

If you're a novice to meditation, there are also many different types of meditation to check out -- although this is not to suggest that all types are the same or will produce the study's results.  One type is Transcendental Meditation (TM), which David Lynch Foundation CEO Bob Roth describes as "effortless" in the video below:

"Transcendental meditation involves no concentration, no effort, and that's important," Roth said. "The reason for that is because the natural tendency of the human mind is to be drawn towards something more satisfying ... In transcendental meditation, we learn how to give the attention of the mind an inward direction and effortlessly it's drawn within ... It's the effortless transcending ... that is responsible for the whole huge range of benefits we find in our technique."

Earlier this year, the David Lynch Foundation hosted a Manhattan event at which major public figures such as Arianna Huffington and Robin Roberts turned up to discuss transcendental meditation. At the gathering, Roth talked about the positive benefits of transcendental meditation on the mind.

"There is no medicine, no wonder drug you can take to prevent trauma and toxic stress. And there is no pill you can take to treat or cure it," Roth said. "TM can be an effective tool. It helps you navigate increasingly stressful times. I’m a skeptical person. There’s nothing to believe in. There’s no buy-in. It just works."

Another form of meditation is orgasmic meditation (OM), which entails rubbing a woman's clitoris for 15 minutes. It's supposed to have a therapeutic effect and not a sexual one, as OM is said to activate the brain's limbic system and release a flood of oxytocin.

Deepak Chopra's YouTube channel even filmed an orgasmic meditation session, which you can watch below:

If you're interested in meditation, here's some good YouTube meditation music to listen to: