Mindful meditation benefits your mood, memory, and health. You don’t have to take our word for it – numerous studies in the past few years actually measured the changes in the brain. Studies have also compared the effect of mindfulness meditation on memory and mood to basic relaxation or nonmeditating groups.
There is a measurable, scientific explanation for why meditation and mindfulness become effortless over time (Davis & Hayes 2011, p. 201). The brain actually changes physically as it learns from experience – it’s called neuroplasticity. Individuals who practice mindfulness meditation consistently show thicker brain regions involving attention, sensory processing, and sensitivity to internal stimuli, as well as thicker brain stems, which may contribute to the mental, emotional, and immune system benefits (p. 201).
People who practice mindfulness meditation are less reactive to stress. It’s called emotional regulation. Imagine that someone says something sarcastic and insulting to you. There is a split second when your brain processes what they just said and judges whether it was harmful or not – your emotions, or feelings, react to that process. If you judge it as harmful, your adrenal system kicks in, because it doesn’t know the difference between an insult and a physical threat. If your system is consistently flooded with adrenaline that it doesn’t use, then you become very “stressed out.” People with strong emotional regulation have a strong awareness of that processing, judge fewer actions as harmful, and experience less stress reaction.
In another study, the researchers had found that meditation practice reduced the concentration of gray matter (processing neurons) in the amygdala, a region associated with fear, anxiety, and stress—and that this reduction was correlated with lower stress levels (Harvard 2011 17). When compared to other forms of meditation, like mantra meditation, the mindfulness meditators had more stimulation on brain areas associated with self-observation and attention (Davis & Hayes 2011, p. 199).
Do you ever feel like you can’t stop picking things apart, and like you just can’t shake a bad mood? Mindfulness meditation also strengthens the middle prefrontal lobe functions like self-insight and fear modulation (p. 201). Evidence indicates that mindfulness meditation reduces rumination, or thinking about negative experiences over and over. Self-observation actually shuts off the automatic pathways that neurons are trained to travel by negativity – meditation trains your neurons to travel on different paths. Brain regions that respond to provocation actually return to baseline faster in meditators (p. 201).
Think about that for a second. By practicing mindfulness meditation, you could actually have better control of your emotions, better control of your reactions, and feel less stress or fear. You can change your brain.
Yet another study showed that individuals who began mindfulness meditation had less cortisol in their systems – cortisol is the stress hormone that inspires tension and hunger. In cancer patients who did mindfulness meditation, cytokine and “natural killer cell activities” returned towards normal levels. In healthy individuals, meditation resulted in increased antibodies that fight influenza, as well as lowering the stress-incuded interleukin-626 and C-reactive protein (Young 2011, p. 76).
Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester used an MRI to study the effect of mindfulness meditation on the brain. In the group who conducted 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation, there was more gray matter “around the hippocampus (a deep brain structure important for learning, memory, and the regulation of emotions) and other regions associated with remembering the past and imagining the future, as well as with introspection, empathy, and the ability to acknowledge the viewpoints of others” (Harvard 2011, p. 17). The control
group didn’t have increases in grey matter.
Researchers at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC studied 88 students over 12 weeks. They split the students into 3 groups. One group was trained in mindfulness meditation. The second group did “sham” meditation: they did some breathing and relaxation, but no actual meditation. The third group just stayed in a room together; they weren’t allowed to sleep or do homework, but they were able to chat quietly or move around the room. All three groups were told they were meditating (Zeidan 2010, p. 871).
The meditation group experienced an 88% drop in negative mood. The sham group experienced a 32% drop, and the control group 34%. The mindfulness meditation and sham meditation both experienced less tension, but mindfulness was more effective. An unexpected benefit was that mindfulness meditation alone reduced depression. (p. 871).
Another study examined how mindfulness meditation affects working memory, which is is the ability to hold and use information in the mind for complex tasks like learning and reasoning. During a very stressful predeployment period, they trained a military group and a civilian group in mindfulness meditation for 8 weeks. They also studied a nonmeditating military group during that time. The military group who didn’t meditate showed a decrease in working memory, and the civilian group was stable. The meditating military group actually showed increased working memory – and the more the individuals meditated, the more in increased. The meditating military group also had better moods and less negative feelings during the stressful time (Davis & Hayes 2011, p. 200).
Believe it or not, this is only the tip of the iceberg. The brain is something we’re only beginnning to understand. It’s pretty clear, though, that meditation isn’t a bunch of self-help hogwash. Meditation is a time-honored tradition that has only gotten better with age. If you practice mindfulness meditation over time, you can change your brain and have better control of your emotions.
Davis, D. M., & Hayes, J. A. (2011). What are the benefits of mindfulness? A practice review of psychotherapy-related research. Psychotherapy, 48(2), 198-208.
Mindfulness meditation practice changes the brain. (2011). Harvard Women’s Health Watch, 18(8), 6-7.
Young, S. N. (2011). Biologic effects of mindfulness meditation: growing insights into neurobiologic aspects of the prevention of depression. Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, 36(2), 75-77.
Zeidan, F., Johnson, S. K., Gordon, N. S., & Goolkasian, P. (2010). Effects of Brief and Sham Mindfulness Meditation on Mood and Cardiovascular Variables. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 16(8), 867-873.