A Still Mind Is A Sharp Mind: The Neural Enhancing Effects of Meditation

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Although thoughts arise during meditation, they are not grabbed onto, chewed on, or analyzed.

Thoughts come and go while meditating without absorbing our attention. This mostly quiet state of neural activity is the goal of meditation.

Science Validates the Benefits of Meditation

Many of meditation’s benefits, experienced for centuries, have now been demonstrated scientifically. Research reveals that meditation can loosen rigid neural pathways, enhance the brain’s processing of information, increase memory recall, and lower the risk of disease in another center of intelligence, our heart.

Loosening Rigid Neural Pathways

The brain’s Me Center processes incoming information as being related to the self, the individual. Some people have developed a well-worn connection between their Me Center (medial prefrontal cortex) and their bodily sensation/fear centers. They are likely to assume that any feeling of anxiety, fear, or any bodily sensation means there is a problem with their self, or their safety is at stake.

The strong neural connection between the Me Center and the bodily sensation/fear centers loosens up during meditation, leaving people less likely to overreact to, or become distressed by, body sensations or fears.

Simultaneously, meditation strengthens the connection between the brain’s Assessment Center (the lateral prefrontal cortex) and bodily sensation/fear centers. The Assessment Center allows people to judge their experiences more rationally and objectively, so they are less likely to take things personally.

Enhances Information Processing

Brain gyrification, or convolution, is the folding of cortical brain tissue—what gives our brain its wrinkly appearance. Gyrification creates surface area for cortical neurons and may be related to intelligence.

A study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience revealed that meditation can change the geometry or degree of folding on the brain’s surface. In this study, years of regular meditating were associated with greater gyrification—believed to increase a person’s ability to process and use information.

Increases Memory Recall

People who practice meditation are better able to modulate or adjust their brain waves, increasing their degree of concentration. This makes them more proficient at processing and retaining information.

“Our discovery that mindfulness meditators more quickly adjusted the brain wave that screens out distraction could explain their superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts,” said Catherine Kerr, a researcher at Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and Osher Research Center (Harvard Medical School).

Lowers the Risk of Heart Disease

Our heart center has its own neural network or intelligence system that functions in cooperation with our brain’s neural activity. Just as meditation benefits the brain, it benefits our heart and its functions.

In one study, 201 black men and women diagnosed with heart disease were randomly selected to participate in either a health education group (diet, exercise), or a Transcendental Meditation program. The participants were followed for about five years.

During the follow-up period, there was a 48 percent risk reduction for mortality by heart disease or stroke in the TM group. The risk reduction was associated with the participant’s lower blood pressure and diminished psychosocial stress.

Mental Health

Meditative practices are also beneficial for managing symptoms of anxiety , mood disorders, OCD, and PTSD. The type of meditation is a personal preference, but continuous benefit always requires regular practice.

Sources: Psychology Today; Stanford; PsychCentral; American Heart Association; Spirit Science
Photo credit: Betty Nudler / flickr creative commons

 
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