Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years. It is part of many religions such as Buddhism and is a great way to help people relax. Meditation can take many forms such as Mindfulness, non-directive mediation in which the practitioner lets their mind think freely and concentrative meditation in which the practitioner attempts to focus on one area of their life.
A study by Norwegian scientists investigated what happens to the brain during mediation versus casual resting. The study was published in the open journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Acem meditation is a type of non-directive meditation. It was developed in the 1960s in Norway. It was developed as a non-religious technique that focuses on mentally repeating a word to relax the mind and body. This form of meditation does not seek to reach any state of consciousness. Instead it allows thoughts to come and go from the mind as they become absorbed by the mantra.
14 experienced participants took part in the study into Acem meditation. MRI scans on the brain were taken to measure the effects during three different stages. These stages were nondirective meditation, open monitoring, which allows the participant to think freely and focused attention, in which the participant deliberately tries to prevent random thoughts and focuses solely on their breathing. The results found significant increases in brain activity for the areas of the brain linked with emotion and memory during non-directive meditation compared to focused meditation. This was the opposite of what was expected.
In a press release author Jian Xu said “I was surprised that the activity of the brain was greatest when the person’s thoughts wandered freely on their own, rather than when the brain worked to be more strongly focused. When the subjects stopped doing a specific task and were not really doing anything special, there was an increase in activity in the brain where we process thoughts and feelings. It is described as a kind of resting network. And it was this area that was most active during nondirective meditation.”
Below you will find four ways in which Mindfulness can affect your brain. This post was originally published on mindful.org in August 2015:
Increased Grey Matter/Cortical Thickness in the following key areas:
• Anterior Cingulate Cortex: Increased grey matter changes were noted in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is a structure located behind the brain’s frontal lobe. It has been associated with such functions as self-regulatory processes, including the ability to monitor attention conflicts, and allow for more cognitive flexibility.
• Prefrontal Cortex: Increased grey matter density was also found in areas of the prefrontal lobe, which are primarily responsible for executive functioning such as planning, problem solving, and emotion regulation.
• Hippocampus: Increased cortical thickness in the hippocampus has also been noted. The hippocampus is the part of the limbic system that governs learning and memory and is extraordinarily susceptible to stress and stress-related disorders like depression or PTSD.
Decreased Amygdala Size:
Studies have shown that the amygdala, known as our brain’s “fight or flight” centre and the seat of our fearful and anxious emotions, decreases in brain cell volume after mindfulness practice.
Diminished or enhanced functionality in certain networks/connections:
Not only does the amygdala shrink post mindfulness practice, but the functional connections between the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex are weakened. This allows for less reactivity and paves the way for connections between areas associated with higher order brain functions to be strengthened (i.e. attention, concentration, etc.).
Reduced activity in the Brain’s “Me” Centre:
Mindfulness practice has been implicated in the decreased activation and the stilling of our Default Mode Network (DMN), which is also sometimes referred to as our wandering “Monkey Minds.” The DMN is active when our minds are directionless as it goes from thought to thought, a response that is sometimes likened to rumination and not always adaptive with regards to overall happiness.
The impact that mindfulness exerts on our brain is borne from routine: a slow, steady, and consistent reckoning of our realities, and the ability to take a step back, become more aware, more accepting, less judgmental, and less reactive. Just as playing the piano repeatedly over time strengthens and supports brain networks involved with playing music, mindfulness over time can make the brain, and thus, us, more efficient regulators, with a penchant for pausing to respond to our worlds instead of mindlessly reacting.