10 Remarkable Ways Meditation Helps Your Mind
Studies find meditation provides lasting emotional control, cultivates compassion, reduces pain sensitivity, boosts multitasking and more…
Meditation is about way more than just relaxing.
But all these flow from a simple activity which is completely free, involves no expensive equipment, chemicals, apps, books or other products.
But first, what are all these remarkable benefits?
1. Lasting emotional control
Meditation may make us feel calmer while we’re doing it, but do these benefits spill over into everyday life?
Desborders et al. (2012) scanned the brains of people taking part in an 8-week meditation program, before and after the course.
While they were scanned, participants looked at pictures designed to elicit positive, negative and neutral emotional responses.
After the meditation course, activation in the amygdala, the emotional centre of the brain, was reduced to all pictures.
This suggests that meditation can help provide lasting emotional control, even when you are not meditating.
2. Cultivate compassion
Meditation has long been thought to help people be more virtuous and compassionate. Now this has been put to scientific test.
Research on meditation has shown that empathy and compassion are higher in those who practice meditation regularly. One experiment showed participants images of other people that were either good, bad or neutral in what they called “compassion meditation.” The participants were able to focus their attention and reduce their emotional reactions to these images, even when they weren’t in a meditative state. They also experienced more compassion for others when shown disturbing images.
Part of this comes from activity in the amygdala—the part of the brain that processes emotional stimuli. During meditation, this part of the brain normally shows decreased activity, but in this experiment it was exceptionally responsive when participants were shown images of people.
Another study in 2008 found that people who meditated regularly had stronger activation levels in their temporal parietal junctures (a part of the brain tied to empathy) when they heard the sounds of people suffering, than those who didn’t meditate.
In one study participants who had been meditating were given an undercover test of their compassion.
They were sat in a staged waiting area with two actors when another actor entered on crutches, pretending to be in great pain. The two actors sat next to the participants both ignored the person who was in pain, sending the unconscious signal not to intervene.
Those who had been meditating, though, were 50% more likely to help the person in pain.
One of the study’s authors, David DeSteno, said:
“The truly surprising aspect of this finding is that meditation made people willing to act virtuous–to help another who was suffering–even in the face of a norm not to do so.”
3. Change brain structures
Meditation is such a powerful technique that, after only 8 weeks, the brain’s structure changes.
To show these effects, images of 16 people’s brains were taken before and after they took a meditation course.
Compared with a control group, grey-matter density in the hippocampus–an area associated with learning and memory–was increased.
The study’s lead author, Britta Hölzel, said:
“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.”
4. Reduce pain
One of the benefits of changes to the brain’s structure is that regular meditators experience less pain.
Testing applied a heated plate to the calves of meditators and non-meditators. The meditators had lower pain sensitivity.
Joshua Grant explained:
“Through training, Zen meditators appear to thicken certain areas of their cortex and this appears to be underlie their lower sensitivity to pain.”
5. Accelerate cognition
How would you like your brain to work faster?
This is where things get really interesting. Using modern technology like fMRI scans, scientists have developed a more thorough understanding of what’s taking place in our brains when we meditate. The overall difference is that our brains stop processing information as actively as they normally would. We start to show a decrease in beta waves, which indicate that our brains are processing information, even after a single 20-minute meditation session if we’ve never tried it before.
In the image below you can see how the beta waves (shown in bright colors on the left) are dramatically reduced during meditation (on the right).
Below is the best explanation of what happens in each part of the brain during meditation:
This is the most highly evolved part of the brain, responsible for reasoning, planning, emotions and self-conscious awareness. During meditation, the frontal cortex tends to go offline.
This part of the brain processes sensory information about the surrounding world, orienting you in time and space. During meditation, activity in the parietal lobe slows down.
The gatekeeper for the senses, this organ focuses your attention by funneling some sensory data deeper into the brain and stopping other signals in their tracks. Meditation reduces the flow of incoming information to a trickle.
As the brain’s sentry, this structure receives incoming stimuli and puts the brain on alert, ready to respond. Meditating dials back the arousal signal.
6. Meditate to create
The right type of meditation can help solve some creative problems.
Those using an ‘open monitoring’ method of meditation came up with the most ideas.
This method uses focusing on the breath to set the mind free.
Researchers at LeidenUniversity in the Netherlands studied both focused-attention and open-monitoring mediation to see if there was any improvement in creativity afterwards. They found that people who practiced focused-attention meditation did not show any obvious signs of improvement in the creativity task following their meditation. For those who did open-monitoring meditation, however, they performed better on a task that asked them to come up with new ideas.
7. Sharpen concentration
At its heart, meditation is all about learning to concentrate, to have greater control over the spotlight of attention.
An increasing body of studies now underline the benefits of meditation for attention.
For example, 17 people who had not practised meditation before, sent for an 8-week training course in mindfulness-based stress reduction, a type of meditation.
These 17 participants were then compared with a further 17 from a control group on a series of attentional measures. The results showed that those who had received training were better at focusing their attention than the control group.
8. Improve multitasking at work
Since meditation benefits different aspects of cognition, it should also improve work performance.
It’s proven by giving groups of human resource managers’ tests of their multitasking abilities.
Those who practised meditation performed better on standard office tasks–like answering phones, writing email and so on–than those who had not been meditating.
Meditating managers were better able to stay on task and also experienced less stress as a result.
9. Reduce anxiety
Meditation is an exercise often recommended for those experiencing anxiety. 20-minute meditation classes were enough to reduce anxiety by up to 39%.
10 Fight depression
A central symptom of depression is rumination: when depressing thoughts roll around and around in the mind.
Unfortunately you can’t just tell a depressed person to stop thinking depressing thoughts; it’s pointless. That’s because treating the symptoms of depression is partly about taking control of the person’s attention.
One method that can help with this is mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is all about living in the moment, rather than focusing on past regrets or future worries.
A recent review of 39 studies on mindfulness has found that it can be beneficial in treating depression.