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The Neuroscience of Meditation

Ayurveda, Yoga, Buddhism, and many other practices have been discussing the importance of meditation and mindfulness for thousands of years. Meditation has been known to increase focus and clarity by giving you more mental strength and energy. It can also reduce stress, anxiety, and increase self-awareness. While it might seem obvious to some that mediation is beneficial, we want to give you a neuroscience perspective to understand what’s happening when we meditate. Neuroscience research over the past two decades has begun to support that mediation for stress and overall health has beneficial effects on physical and mental health, as well as cognitive performance.

The journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience published an extensive review on the current state of neuroscience research on mindfulness meditation. The review, “The Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation” looked at recent neuroimaging studies that have begun to see where in the brain meditation affects the brain and how it can have positive effects.

Numerous neuroimaging studies have investigating into the changes in brain morphology related to mediation. As there are a few findings, a meta-analysis collected data from 21 neuroimaging studies examining the brain activity of 300 experienced meditation practitioners. This study found that eight brain regions were altered with the experienced meditation practitioners.

The Eight Regions Included:

Sensory cortices and insular cortex: the main cortical area for processing tactile information such as pain, touch, body awareness, and conscious proprioception.

Hippocampus: A pair of subcortical structures that are involved in memory formation and facilitating emotional responses.

Rostrolateral prefrontal cortex: A region associated with meta-awareness (i.e. awareness of thinking), processing complex and/or abstract information, and introspection.

Superior longitudinal fasciculus and corpus callosum: The subcortical fascia tracts that communicate within and between brain hemispheres.

Anterior cingulate cortex and mid-cingulate cortex: The cortical regions involved in emotional regulation, attention, and self-control.

Many of the studies used different neuroimaging measurements, which varies the specific ways in which the brain regions changed. Changes were seen in the thickness of brain tissues (number of neurons, glia, or fibers of the region), cortical surface area, and white matter density.

Due to the studies finding that many regions were activated during meditation, the study suggested that the effects of meditation involved large-scale brain networks and multiple brain functions.

Meditation Can Alter Patterns in Brain Activity In their review, they investigated into if meditation exerts its effects via altered activation of brain regions involved in emotional awareness, attention, and emotional regulation. What they found was that the neuroimaging revealed changes in the brain structure and change in the brains activation patterns.

When discussing emotion regulation they came up with a hypothesis that meditation strengthens the prefrontal cognitive processes that in turn modulates activity in the brains regions for emotional processing, such as the amygdala. Other studies seem to support this.

Overall, there needs to be more research done on the effects of meditation on the brain. Nevertheless, meditation has been a practice done by humans for thousands of years and there are many studies done looking at the benefits of a meditation practice. It can bring a stronger sense of self-representation, higher self-esteem, and acceptance. It can reduce anxiety, increase focus, relaxation, enhance self-awareness, and improve your well-being!

A Quick Meditation: Tratak Tratak is a simple meditation practice where you gaze at a flame. Tratak increases alertness, confidence, stability in your thoughts, and the ability to notice your reactions when faced with emotional triggers. It can also help improve eyesight, calm the mind, and helps with stress reduction. Tratak is accessible for people because there is a focal point, usually a candle flame, which helps ground your focus. Concentration is the first step of meditation.

Directions A breathing exercise of Nadi Shodhana can be beneficial before starting Tratak. Light a candle in your room or wherever you are comfortable. Sit in an upright position sitting down, on a floor, or in Padmasana (full Lotus). This can help the spine stay straight and that the internal energy can flow through your body.

It is recommended the candle be a few feet away from your face. It should be at eye level. Began by deepening the length of your inhale and exhale. Focus your eyes and keep your gaze from blinking as long as possible. Take deep inhales and exhales as you gaze at the flame. If thoughts arise, acknowledge them and let them pass. Do this for 5 minutes.

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