According to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 percent of Americans meditate, making it the most popular mind/body practice in the United States besides yoga. We know that meditation is incredibly effective at lowering stress, bolstering the immune system, and improving cognition and focus. But did you know that meditation actually changes your brain and body, paving the way for those sought-after improvements?
When you meditate, you are literally strengthening parts of the brain that control memory, emotions, problem-solving, and more. Perhaps even more intriguing is the fact that you don’t need to practice all that much to enjoy the rewards.
As recently as a decade ago, some researchers believed that 1,000 to 10,000 hours’ worth of meditation was needed to reap the benefits, but we now know that just five to 10 sessions can be enough to create change that is significant enough to be seen on a brain scan.
How to meditate
One of the more researched and more popular types of meditation is mindfulness meditation (MM). Here’s how to do it:
- Settle into a comfortable position. You can recline, sit in a chair or on the floor, walk, or do a gentle exercise such as tai chi.
- Focus your attention on something happening in the present moment, such as your breath, a word, or a mental image.
- As you focus, notice any new sensations or thoughts that arise. Notice them but don’t judge them.
- If your mind wanders, don’t chastise yourself (“Stop daydreaming! You aren’t doing this right!”) and instead gently bring your mind back to the present (“Oh, your mind wandered a bit. Time to refocus on your breath.”)
That emphasis on nonjudgment plays a role in stress reduction. Every time you bring your focus back to the meditation, it’s like exercising a calming muscle that strengthens with use, during meditation as well as in everyday life. This translates to reduced reactivity to stressful thoughts, emotions, and events, almost like a higher baseline for stress tolerance.
Mindfulness-based practices reduce activity in the amygdala, an area of the brain that governs the fight-or-flight stress response, fear, and emotion. This reduction helps people to be less reactive to upsetting situations and to recover more quickly after a stressful event occurs.
Research my colleagues and I conducted showed that just five to seven sessions of a form of MM called integrative body-mind training (IBMT) was enough to increase positive affect and reduce negative affect.
Positive affect is the extent to which a person feels happy or is able to experience other positive emotions, such as joy, calmness, and contentment. It is tied to multiple desirable health outcomes, including reduced rates of heart disease, a reduced risk of catching a cold or the flu, and a reduced risk of frailty as one ages.
Sharper focus and cognition
Our brain’s default mode can be described as “mind-wandering,” meaning that, for most of us, even when we’re doing nothing, our brain is highly active. Work projects, to-do lists, worrying about finances: This feels like the norm for many of us, but it’s quite taxing for the brain.
A specific area of the brain called the default network manages all that mind-wandering, and it requires energy and resources that are also needed for memory and cognition. Over time, the more energy and resources that go to the default network, the fewer you have available for paying attention and remembering other things.
When my colleagues and I trained college students in IBMT, we were curious to see what effects a short-term practice might have on mind-wandering.
We found that just five 20-minute sessions of IBMT were enough to significantly reduce activity in the default network when subjects were at rest.
This preserves resources in the short term, assisting with focus and clearheadedness, but it’s reasonable to believe that it may also offer protection against age-related cognitive decline when sustained for years and decades.
Other research of ours shows that 10 sessions of IBMT create changes in the white matter of the brain, particularly in the self-control and reward networks that support learning and information processing. That means MM can impact how quickly and easily you absorb and retain new information.
Stick to new habits
White matter also plays an important role in executive functioning, a set of mental skills that allows us to focus and remember the thousands of steps required to go about our day and to help us set goals and cement new habits into place.
If MM strengthens the white matter in the brain in self-control-related areas, and we know that it does because we can see these changes on brain scans, it’s reasonable to think that it also helps people adopt and stick to healthy new habits such as trying a new exercise routine or eating more plant-based foods.
In fact, some people spontaneously change their lifestyle after meditating, showing new interest in health and wellness. This may be a direct result of insights that can happen during MM which motivate us to make changes for the better.