Why Meditation Affects Your Brain and Behavior
The last couple of decades has seen an explosion in meditation research.
Scientists were pretty excited when they started discovering that an age old practice could not only have an effect on our psychological health, but also could affect our physical brains.
Not to mention have surprising benefits for our modern society.
It’s hard to deny the results from hundreds of studies. And the evidence is still rolling in. But you still may be left wondering why meditation affects your brain and behavior.
The Mystery of Meditation
There isn’t much debate on the benefits of meditation. For starters, it lowers our stress levels and reduces anxiety.
But it even affects our brains on a neural level. Studies have noticed changes in both white and grey matter in the brains of meditators. And while the benefits are apparent, a mystery still remains.
The relationship between the physical changes and reductions in anxiety and stress hormones caused by mindfulness is still unclear. But we do have clues.
Following The Brain Clues
Previous research has noticed that meditation can alter the patterns of our brainwaves. Or the rhythmic firing of groups of neurons that are in our brain.
Usually, our neurons will fire at different frequencies. But for people who meditate, neurons in certain areas of the brain fire in a pattern that is slower. Even when they stop meditating. Their neurons fire at about 4 to 8 times per second, or what’s known as theta brainwaves.
Could these brainwaves be the key?
A new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, aimed to find out. And to do so they had to find a way to make mice meditate.
What Happens In the Brain of a Meditating Mouse?
A lot is still being discovered about how our brain functions. And much of these is due to advances in technology.
One of those recent advances is optogenetics. A process that uses light to directly manipulate the firing of neurons.
To test if theta brainwaves were the key, researchers used optogenetics with genetically altered mice to generate brainwave patterns that were similar to those of human meditation.
They did this 20 separate times for a period of thirty minutes. They also had some mice generate brainwaves at higher frequencies and a third group who received no treatment at all.
When it was all said and done, what did they notice?
It was the mice who “meditated” that exhibited less anxious behaviors. They explored more, stayed in well lit areas, and stood on their hind legs more often than their counterparts. Behavior that is associated with less stress and more calm.
What Does this Mean?
A lot of studies in neuroscience use mice to find clues about how things work. Mostly because there are so many similarities between our mammalian brains. But the researchers are cautious about interpreting the results.
When humans meditate, it’s intentional. We choose to direct our attention and focus. The mice, on the other hand, where manipulated to produce the brainwaves. In other words, they weren’t really meditating. So it’s hard to say how broadly these results apply.
But the study shows that the slower brainwaves can at least partially explain why meditation affects your brain and behavior.
From a scientific standpoint, it was simply a “proof of concept”. But it does bring us closer to understanding what’s happening under the biological hood of meditation.
There have been other changes in our brain that are associated with meditation. So there’s still a lot of unanswered questions.
For instance, how does this study relate to the white matter density of long term meditators? Do certain types of meditation affect the brain differently? Does breathing play a role in changing our brainwaves or other changes?
These won’t have easy answers, but the research team is already taking the next step. And they hope to uncover more about meditations physical mechanisms in the coming year.
But until then breathe deep, keep focused, and enjoy the benefits of meditation!