The word meditation might bring to mind yoga, chimes, and juice cleanses, but it isn’t just some New Age trend. Meditation has been a part of different cultural and religious practices around the world for thousands of years, with the earliest written records coming from India in 1500 BCE. And it turns out, both clinical psychologists and neuroscientists are trying to figure out how it affects our minds and our brains. Meditation is getting a lot of attention nowadays in Western societies, but it’s become sort of catch-all term, and the rich histories and traditions can get forgotten or mixed together. So most psychology and neuroscience research focuses on mindfulness meditation.
During a basic session of mindfulness meditation, people quietly focus their attention on one thing, like the pattern of their breath. And when their minds wander off inevitably to think about girlfriends or homework, they refocus without judging themselves for getting distracted. The goal is to create a habit of mindfulness—basically, remembering to live in this moment, instead of worrying about the future or dwelling on the past. And it seems to help with good brain well-being things. For instance, research on small groups has found that regular meditation seems to improve your ability to focus.
People who have been practicing meditation regularly for at least several weeks tend to score higher than non-meditators on attention tests, like trying to quickly complete a difficult puzzle or a game that’s designed to trip you up. And people who consider themselves mindful have been found to have more cognitive flexibility— like being aware that you are irritated with that dumb, hard puzzle a researcher is making you do. Scientists have also observed that people who practice mindfulness meditation are less emotionally reactive. In other words, they’re not as deeply affected by upsetting images and can better control their emotional responses to things, like not yelling when your cat jumps on your keyboard and laughing it off instead.
In one study, a group of 20 novice meditators participated in a 10-day intensive workshop. Immediately afterwards, they said that they had fewer depressive symptoms and spent less time ruminating— or, focusing on distressing thoughts. Other small studies have found that meditation is beneficial for some mental illnesses, too, especially anxiety disorders and depression. So mindfulness could be useful for general well-being, like reducing stress in workplaces or schools, but it might also be helpful as a therapy. There’s still a lot of work to be done, though. Most of this psychology research is on small groups of participants. And there aren’t any longitudinal studies, which would follow subjects for weeks and years after they start a mindfulness practice, and let scientists control for more variables. So, overall, it seems like meditation might be good for your mind, but does it actually affect your brain? Your brain works because of electrochemistry—your neurons use electrical signals to communicate.
All of those neurons firing together can lead to some very recognizable electrical patterns, called neural oscillations, or brain waves. Depending on what your brain is doing, it generates different wave patterns, which we can measure. EEG studies, which record electrical brain activity through the scalp, have found that the brains of meditating people have increased alpha and theta wave activity. That activity is usually linked with relaxing things like walking your dog or daydreaming in class. And fMRI studies, which measure blood flow in different parts of the brain, have found activation in cortical brain regions, which are in the outermost layer of the brain. These regions are important for higher-order cognitive functions, like planning, decision making, and emotional regulation. In fact, scientists think that meditation can even cause long-term changes to the brain, thanks to fMRI studies involving people who regularly practice intensive meditation, like Buddhist monks. Tibetan monks who regularly spend time meditating on compassion have shown increased activity in the insula, a brain region associated with detecting emotions and generating a physical response to those emotions.
Also, when they’re focusing on feeling love for other people or exposed to emotion-provoking stimuli, like a picture of a sad kid with a broken toy, they have more activity in the temporal parietal juncture, which is associated with empathy. Some researchers think that regular meditation may even help protect the brain against aging. Your brain consists of gray matter, which is mostly cell bodies, and white matter, which is mostly the branched part of neurons that reach out into other brain regions. How much gray matter you have can correlate with abilities like memory or intelligence, and as you age, your amount of gray matter shrinks. But one study involving 100 people found that long-term meditators lost less gray matter as they aged compared to non-meditators. Now, it’s worth repeating that these neuroscience studies aren’t perfect, either— their small group sizes and relatively short timelines make it difficult to say anything super conclusive about meditation.
After all, the way a Tibetan monk practices meditation isn’t going to be the same as the way an American high school student practices meditation, which can lead to totally different results. So even though the research is promising, and scientists think mindfulness has at least some benefits for your brain, there’s still a lot we don’t know. Thank you for watching this episode of SciShow Psychology, especially to our patrons on Patreon, who are the whole reason SciShow Psychology exists in the first place. If you would like to help with that, you can go to patreon.com/scishow, and for two new psychology videos every week, just go to youtube.com/scishowpsych and subscribe!.