Meditation changes your brain.
There are more neuronal connections in a cubic millimeter of your brain than there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy. For a long time, it was believed that these connections were fixed in place, with neuronal networks forming early and then staying static throughout our lives. However, this has been widely disproven in recent years.
The brain is not fixed like a motherboard. Neurons are constantly creating and breaking new networks. The basic rule is that neurons that fire together, wire together. For example, if every time we see a dog, neurons in our brains fire off to signal happiness and excitement, these pathways will reinforce themselves until we automatically feel happy when we see a dog. Likewise, if we’ve had a bad experience with a dog, we may have formed neural networks that fire to release stress hormones when we see one. The brain’s ability to change itself in this way is known as neuroplasticity, and is one of the most exciting scientific discoveries ever made.
Neuroplasticity has both short and long term implications. In the short term, how we think affects our central nervous system. We each have what is called an Autonomic Nervous System, responsible for unconscious processes such as respiration, heart rate and digestion. It is divided into the PNS (parasympathetic nervous system) and SNS (sympathetic nervous system).
The SNS is responsible for your ‘fight or flight’ response. It’s designed to release stress hormones like cortisol and lactate that help us respond to danger. This gives us and other animals an evolutionary advantage, for example by helping us run away from a tiger, or fight when cornered. Your PNS, conversely, is responsible for ‘rest and repose’. The PNS releases chemicals like dopamine and helps us to relax and regenerate.
The PNS and SNS work in harmony with one another. If you activate your PNS, stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline and lactate automatically decrease as neurotransmitters like dopamine increase. You can live without your SNS, but you would be useless in an emergency situation. Without your PNS, however, you would die.
Because your SNS is activated in response to threat regardless of whether it’s a tiger in the jungle or a deadline at work, modern life wreaks havoc on our nervous systems. Small and medium-sized stressors on a daily basis leave our SNS over-stimulated. The result is that we feel tired, anxious and generally wound up.
Meditation works in part by activating your PNS and reducing the levels of stress hormones in your body. This can happen in as little as three minutes. Ultimately, it is a question of mind over matter. Meditation doesn’t make stress disappear from our lives; it changes how we perceive and react to it on a visceral, chemical level.
Meditation also changes the frequency of our brain waves. In our normal waking state, we emit what are known as Beta brain waves. Meditation changes the frequency down to Alpha. Alpha brain waves are associated with increased learning, visualisation, memory and concentration. Deeper states of meditation and visionary states of consciousness emit Theta brain waves. These are associated with boundary dissolution and transpersonal experiences.
Exciting new studies have shown that meditation can have incredible effects on our brain in the long term. Long term meditators have increased brain volume in the frontal lobes and the insula, areas of our brains responsible for mediating attention, emotions and memory.
Meditation has another, very interesting effect on areas of our brain responsible for identity. Recent studies show that meditation decreases blood flow to areas responsible for giving us a sense of having a separate ego. In Buddha’s Brain: the Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, Rick Hanson tells us that:
“from a neurological standpoint, the everyday feeling of being a unified self is an utter illusion: the apparently coherent and solid ‘I’ is actually built from many subsystems and sub-subsystems of the course of development… the fundamental sense that there is a subject of experience is fabricated from myriad, disparate moments of subjectivity”
So why does this matter? Ancient contemplative traditions teach that attachment to this ‘I’ sensation is the root of all suffering. If we are able to disassociate our identities with this ‘I’, then there is no ‘I’ who gets stressed and scared and furious. When we use meditation to become mindful of this ‘I’, we realise that it’s only a small part of who we are. We aren’t just our thoughts and feelings, but an endlessly changing flow of experience that is ultimately much more exciting.
Links to articles and studies
Watch Jon Kabat Zinn talk about meditation and brain plasticiy:
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