The Weekly Beaker: The Neuroscience of Wellbeing- Meditation
Published: Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, September 11, 2012 00:09
Meditation has been a central component of religious traditions for millennia. Various methods exist, but it generally consists of quieting the mind to achieve a state of relaxation and clarity. Buddhists use it to cultivate virtuous qualities like compassion and equanimity because in the meditative state, the mind is compared to malleable gold. As it turns out, the sages of old actually tapped into quite a literal truth.
Modern neurobiology hypothesizes that what we experience subjectively as a mood or emotion is underpinned by complex, systemic interactions of chemicals called neurotransmitters in the brain. Take, for example, antidepressants: they improve mood by changing the balance of different neurotransmitter systems (increasing some and decreasing others). It is not exactly enchanting to think that the state of being in love is actually a neurochemical concoction leading to positive interpersonal feelings, but that seems to be true.
How does meditation fit into all of this? The practice originated in the East, but in recent decades has migrated into the fast-paced, distraction-laden, work-oriented West, and for good reason. A simple, natural way to decrease stress in about 20 minutes a day? Sign me up—I’ll fit it in between driving the kids to soccer and that late conference call. But that’s exactly what meditation is. Simply by sitting and allowing thoughts to subside, we invoke wellbeing, peace and positivity into our lives.
But as we know, a mood has a chemical basis—and the good mood that one enjoys after meditation is due to real physical changes in the structure of the brain. Neuroscientists took note of the rising popularity of eastern spiritual techniques in the West, and began to study them. The results are fascinating.
A study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in which subjects meditated for about 20 minutes a day for a month found increased axonal density, or a greater number of connections between neurons. This allows for more processing power in the brain. Moreover, greater myelinationwas found in a brain region is responsible for decisions, emotions and empathy and myelination increases the speed that signals between neurons travel—essentially quickening thinking.
This is possible because meditation leads to neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the brain to change its structure based on environmental input, malleable gold indeed. In a state of plasticity, new thoughts and habits can more easily take root, leading to long-term cellular changes and a sustained improvement in the quality of mental life.
Meditation also increases gray matter, which forms the walls of the brain. More gray matter means less aging of the brain. Meditation leads to relaxation, promoting the formation of nitric oxide, which expands blood vessels, decreasing blood pressure. Another PNAS study showed, though with a small sample size, that after eight weeks of meditation by HIV patients, lymphocyte levels remained constant. One of the ways HIV becomes fatal is by weakening the immune system, achieved through a diminished number of lymphocytes. Meditation has been shown to decrease pain more than morphine, and can help relieve chronic pain due to cancer or fibromyalgia. It does so by lowering the activity of certain brain regions responsible for sensing pain. It’s not wise to cease medical treatment for meditation alone but using both in conjunction could have fantastic results.
A device called an electroencephalographis a web of 256 sensors placed on the scalp and measures the electrical activity of neurons. In 2004, eight Buddhist monks were hooked up to these contraptions while meditating on the feeling of unconditional compassion. Researchers found more powerful and greater numbers of gamma waves, which are associated with enhanced connection between distinct brain regions and increased mental awareness, than had ever previously been measured in healthy people. The left prefrontal cortex—associated with positive emotions and thoughts—was pinpointed as an area of major activity in the monks.
Americans often focus on achievement, productivity and success. These things are valuable, but for all the external growth we pursue, perhaps it should be balanced with more internal growth. Meditation explores the vast depth within ourselves, and is a tool to nurture peace, insight, awareness and compassion. And with cutting-edge science now confirming the very literal truth of these developments we owe it to ourselves to try it.