Meditation and the Brain

Neuroplasticity means that the actual physical structure of the brain is malleable and is impacted by our experiences. This implies that directing our experiences, for example, in the form of emotional regulation, can actually change the structure of one’s brain.  Repeated patterns of behavior can create more long-term changes in the brain and develop and strengthen new pathways and connections of neurons. This is exciting as it illustrates that a human being is not merely destined to its biology, but is capable of impacting it to the extent that the human will can reach.  The brain is also constantly regenerating, so the good news is that we can change our brain structure at any age based on our experiences in the present moment.

Resilence and recovery from negative emotional events is associated with greater use of the pre-frontal cortex.  Effective emotional regulation in these situations is also associated with lower levels of cortisol, a major stress hormone in the body which can be toxic at higher levels.  Cortisol can also interfere with learning and memory.  Therefore, anxiety and stress can decrease our cognitive functioning in addition to its negative effect on the body.

The findings of neuroscience are applicable to the practice of meditation.  Meditation is capable of changing the structure of our brains, particularly because of its affect on the process of emotional regulation and its potential assistance in recovery from negative emotional states.  Studies of regular, long-term meditators have demonstrated the impact of meditation on their ability to become more emotionally balanced.  Meditation practices are also increasingly used as an adjunct to therapy and has been demonstrated to assist in recovery from trauma.  Meditation can strengthen areas of the brain that can help us to learn and cultivate different qualities—such as compassion, patience, and inner peace.  Through a regular meditation practice, certain qualities can build over time. Loving-kindness meditation, mindfulness and open presence meditation can help develop these qualities and many more.

Long-time meditators can become less impacted by stress (due to the relaxation response, and emotional regulation) and therefore have greater physical and mental health.  Because stress interferes with cognitive function, meditators can also become mentally sharp as a result of certain forms of meditation, such as focused awareness.  Studies have demonstrated that focused awareness increases the ability to concentrate.

It is useful to know that helpful qualities can be learned through experience, and that methods such as meditation that achieve these results can be taught.  Traits that we once considered to be a part of our personalities, perhaps at birth, are now understood to have the potential to be deliberately cultivated through a contemplative practice.  This has enormous implications for the fields of education, health care, and psychology.  Integration of contemplative practices in these fields would likely achieve excellent results for practitioners as well as students, patients, and clients. This is why I consider meditation the cornerstone of my work and I teach it to all of my Psychic Development students.