“Meditation is an active form of brain training. A lot of people have this idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing, but that’s not true. Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness.”

Researcher Madhav Goyal

In the last post, we have discovered that meditation is extremely beneficial for our mental health: it helps us heal emotional traumas, it helps us deal with pain, it brings us more peace and acceptance, it helps us recover our thirst for life and joy. In today’s post, we will look at how exactly it does all of the above and all the science and research behind it. Understanding the science of meditation can help you understand this practice better and trust the process more when you decide to try it out.

1. Meditation stimulates parasympathetic response. 

When we are under stress, our body activated the sympathetic nervous system, or “fight-or-flight” response, which is preparing us for battle. It is responsible for our survival and helps us mobilize all of our resources to fight the intruder or run for our life. While very useful in appropriate situations, it is not necessary to be active at all times. Moreover, continuous stress damages our body, increasing inflammation, overloading our cardio-vascular system and damaging neurons. When we meditate, we activate the parasympathetic response ( the “rest-and-digest” mode) that slows down our heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, sweating, and soothing all other sympathetic nervous system fight or flight functions. It allows us to relax and breathe life in.

2. It increases cortical thickness in the hippocampus.

Hippocampus is the area in the brain that helps us learn. The tools that we use for cognitive ability and memory are found here, as well as emotional regulators associated with self-awareness and empathy. The research found that cortical thickness of the hippocampus was significantly higher in meditators, suggesting a higher degree of self-awareness, emotional regulation, and empathy.

3. Meditation shrinks and alters the amygdala.

Amygdala is a region of the brain known to coordinate stress processing and physiological stress responses. It is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress. Multiple studies show that continuous stress increases the amygdala, while mindfulness meditation has the opposite effect. Moreover, secondary analyses indicate that these amygdala volume changes persist in conjunction with neuroticism and depression, which explains why mindful individuals have reduced stress reactivity, and why we see so many positive mental and physical health outcomes when meditation and mindfulness are introduced.

4. It strengthens the Temporoparietal Junction (TPJ)

TPJ is responsible for empathy and compassion, giving us another perspective on life. During meditation, TPJ is more active, helping us be more empathetic, kind and understanding to others.

5. Increases Serotonin levels

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of well-being and happiness, though its actual biological function is quite complex: modulating cognition, reward, learning, memory, and numerous physiological processes. Several studies performed on participants after they concluded their meditation sessions, observed a rise in the breakdown products of serotonin in the urine. In one such study of Transcendental Meditation practitioners, the urine samples were analyzed for serotonin, and the meditators exhibited a higher level before meditation when compared to the controls, and a much higher level after meditation.

6. Increases Dopamine levels 

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for vital brain functions that affect mood, sleep, memory, learning, concentration, and motor control, and its levels are vital for both physical and mental wellbeing. A study in Denmark has shown a 65% increase in endogenous dopamine release during Yoga Nidra meditation, as compared to active speech.

7. Decreases Norepinephrine (NE) levels 

Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter involved in anxiety.  In a study which compared levels of NE between two groups of heart failure patients—one which practiced meditation and another which attended weekly meetings, it was determined that the group practicing meditation displayed lower levels of NE in their blood samples. In another experiment, regular meditators expressed lower NE levels than the control group of healthy subjects, when their levels were measured in mornings and evenings.

8. Increases alpha wave activity, diminishing anxiety and boosting problem-solving

Alpha waves are generally associated with more relaxed and alert states of mind. Individuals clinically diagnosed to have anxiety disorder usually display lower activity of alpha waves. Research studies comparing alpha wave activity in meditators and control subjects concluded that people who meditate display higher alpha activity than the controls.

9. Increases theta wave activity

Theta brain waves are the brain frequencies of the barely conscious states just before sleeping and just after awakening. They are responsible for learning, memory, and intuition, and help us focus on signals coming from within our subconscious. An increase in the theta levels can decrease anxiety levels. Research studies have reported an increase in the theta activity in meditators, and four studies mentioned an increase in the frontal midline theta power during meditation. Individuals who have practiced meditation for a much longer time displayed higher theta and alpha power than non-meditators.

10. Decreases activity in the default mode network (DMN)

Default Mode Network (DMN) is the brain network responsible for mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts – a.k.a., the “monkey mind.” Studies have shown that meditation produces reduced activity in a network of brain regions implicated in self-referential processing known as the default mode network (DMN) in experienced meditators compared to non-meditators. Moreover, it appears that meditation leads to reduced default mode processing beyond that observed during another active cognitive task vs rest.

11. Increases neuroplasticity 

Neuroimaging studies have shown that brain connectivity changes in meditators. More specifically, in the theta band, the meditators showed significantly higher degree of connectivity in the right hippocampus as compared to controls. Taking into account the role of the hippocampus in memory processes, and in the pathophysiology of Alzheimer’s disease, meditation might have a potential role in a panel of preventive strategies. When it comes to recovering from depression, PTSD, and anxiety, neuroplasticity is crucial for learning new concepts, new mindsets, processing and reframing the trauma that caused the disorder in the first place.

Our brains are not fixed structures. The neural pathways and circuits can change with learning and with mental exercises, and meditation may be one of the harmless ways to encourage the growth of new neurons (neurogenesis) along with the formation of new connections between existing neurons (synaptogenesis). Looking at the above-mentioned neurobiological effects of neurotransmitters, brain waves, and mental exercise effects of meditation, it is clear that meditation can be an effective treatment for anxiety, depression, PTSD, OCD, and addiction, without introducing any side effects. It can also serve as a wonderful preventive measure and is highly recommended to everyone and not limited to patients suffering from a certain disease.

We hope this post is helpful to you and will give you a better ability to understand the practice of meditation and its effects on the body, mind, and spirit. In the next post, we will explore a multitude of tips on how to start meditating to help you ease into this practice without discomfort and with maximum joy.