The mind-blowing neuroscience on meditation

Would you like a brain that is calmer, less fearful and more able to focus on one thing at a time? How about dramatically improving your happiness and being able to recover from stress much faster?

Well, research is increasingly showing that we do have the power to change our brains.

One of the most famous experiments to demonstrate this was done on black cab drivers in London.

For their training, they have to learn something called The Knowledge, which involves memorising 25,000 streets in central London.

It takes three years, and there are 400 routes that you might be tested on.

Researchers at University College London found that the part of the brain that controls navigation — the hippocampus — is larger in black cab drivers than other people. And the longer they have been a taxi driver, the bigger it is.

A correlation was found between the amount of time spent as a taxi driver and the volume of the right posterior hippocampus.

It seems the brain changes a bit like a muscle: if you use certain parts of it more, they get stronger. Areas that you use less get weaker.

This process of the brain changing as a result of experience is called neuroplasticity.

So if the part of the brain that handles navigation can be developed, what about the other parts?

There is actually an ever-increasing number of studies that show that the brain changes in very positive ways as a result of meditation.

Higher concentration and lower emotional reactivity

Dr Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, carried out a 12-year study to see if the brains of monks who have done thousands of hours of meditation are physically different from people who do not meditate.

Using an MRI scanner, he and his team found that concentration is a trainable skill that improves significantly through practising focused-attention meditation. Advanced levels of concentration are also associated with a decrease in emotionally reactive behaviours.

Greater compassion

Davidson measured the brain of a Tibetan monk named Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche for activity associated with compassion.

During moments of compassion meditation, his brain circuitry for empathy rose 700–800 times compared with during the resting period. This was off the scale of anything that had been measured before.

Increased happiness

Matthieu Ricard, another monk who studies with the Dalai Lama, was dubbed ‘the world’s happiest man’ by Western media as a result of the tests done on him.

Davidson was reported as saying, ‘The scans showed excessive activity in his brain’s left prefrontal cortex compared with its right counterpart, allowing him an abnormally large capacity for happiness and reduced propensity towards negativity.’

Faster recovery from stress

In 2012, Paul Ekman and Alan Wallace found that the blood pressure of teachers who had done an eight-week (42-hour) meditation course returned to normal faster than those who didn’t meditate. In fact, the longer they meditated, the faster they recovered from stress, and it was still effective five months after the training.

They also reported lower depression and anxiety, and increased positive emotions.

Higher grades

A study by Michael Mrazek at the University of California found that students who completed a two-week mindfulness course improved their scores on graduate school entrance exams by 16%.

Slower aging

In 2016, neurologist Dr Florian Kurth from UCLA found that meditation slows down the degeneration of the brain that results from aging.

Areas of the brain affected by aging (in red) are fewer and less widespread in people who meditate (bottom row) than in people who don’t meditate (top row).

“We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating,” he said. “Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain.”

Improved recovery from depression

Oxford University cognitive psychologist Zindel Segal’s research review found that Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) reinforced an area of the brain called the insula, associated with self-awareness, and the prefrontal cortex, associated with emotional regulation.

The research found that MBCT could be more effective at preventing a relapse of depression (47%) than antidepressants (56%).

How much do I need to practise to get these benefits?

We are always looking for a quick fix or a hack, aren’t we?

Well, the science shows that the more you practise, the more you benefit, in the same way that the more you play the piano, the better you get at it. No one would expect to be a concert pianist after doing eight weeks of piano lessons.

The people who showed the greatest changes in brain activity had done thousands of hours of meditation, equivalent to the training an athlete might put in to prepare for the Olympics.

However, that’s not to say that you have to become a monk to see the benefit. You can feel calmer after just doing one 10-minute meditation, and studies of people who have done an eight-week course show their brains already starting to change in the way the monks’ brains had.

So the benefits of meditation are extensive and well-evidenced. I have seen them in my own life, and in the lives of my friends, family and clients.

But there is no shortcut! If you want the benefits, you have to keep practising.

My work is all about love. Loving yourself, loving other people and loving the earth. I do that through writing, podcasting, coaching, running workshops.