The Body Meditation
Studies show that meditation can improve our psychological wellbeing by reducing stress, anxiety, addiction and depression and improving memory and critical thinking. But did you know that meditating can also make structural
changes to the brain? The practice can change the way that neurons talk to each other, creating new circuits. And it can also help some brain regions become thicker, while making others less dense. And let's not forget the body:
Meditating can also reduce blood pressure and even bolster the immune system.Read on to learn more about what’s happening when you sit down and tune out.
- In one study conducted by Kober and associates, study subjects were given a pain stimulus - a painfully hot sensation on their arms. They were given the hot sensation without any instruction and then again with the instruction to
practice mindfulness - to ask themselves the question: Is this a tolerable pain? Can I handle it? The researchers found that not only did the study's participants report 27 percent lower pain sensation after using the mindfulness technique,
they also were able to measure 45 percent less brain activity in the pain matrix after subjects implemented the exercise. They concluded that mindfulness can improve both perception of pain and the actual neural response to pain. And
their research was confirmed when another researcher, Dr. Joshua Grant, conducted the same pain experiment on subjects who already practiced meditation. He found that the number of hours of meditation a person had completed
was directly related to his or her ability to handle the pain during the experiment.
- The amygdala is involved in the way we experience negative emotions like stress. The region actually grows more dense as a result of stress. But those who practice meditation show decreased activity in the area during stressful
moments and also a reduction in density over time. That means meditation can not only alter acute stress response, it actually plays a role in shaping the structure of the brain. For example, in one study, cigarette smokers were split into
two groups: one attended eight mindfulness meditation training sessions and the other took a popular smoking cessation course. While both groups smoked less, the group that learned meditation showed less of a stress response in the
amygdala when they were later asked to recall painful memories while hooked up to an fMRI machine.
- The prefrontal cortex begins to thin with age, contributing to cognitive function decline in later years. But meditation practitioners can reverse this pattern, thanks to an inverse correlation between prefrontal cortex thickness and
meditation practice. "I've found that people who meditate for a very long time don't show a decline in the thickness of the prefrontal cortex", Lazar told HuffPost.
- We each have two hippocampi - seahorse-shaped brain regions that help us form new memories from experiences. Like the amygdala, the Hippocampus is responsive to stress, though in this case stress can shrink the brain region.
Lazar conducted brain imaging research on a group of 16 people before and after taking a standard eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Response training. "We found that the hippocampus is sensitive to cortisol, is negatively impacted
by stress hormones and gets smaller", she said. She found that the group increased the concentration of gray matter in the left hippocampus following the mindfulness training.
PCC (Posterior Cingulate Cortex)
- Lazar also found increases in gray matter density in the PCC, which is associated with "mind wandering" (think: creativity), rumination, self-reflection and something called "self-referential processing" - the way in which a person
assesses how any given situation relates to him or her as an individual.
TPJ (Temporo-Parietal Junction)
- Lazar also found increased gray matter density in the TPJ, which functions inversely to the PCC: It is associated with perspective-taking and empathy. And, indeed, one small study at Emory University
found that a meditation program called Cognitively-Based Compassion Training made subjects more able to read the emotions on strangers faces.
- Meditation may protect against heart disease. One study of 40 older adults found that the eight-week MBSR training reduced concentrations of the marker C-reactive protein, which is associated with the development of heart disease.
- In the same study of older adults, from the University of California, Los Angeles, researches found a drop in the expression of a group of genes that activate inflammation and are of the body's immune response.
- In the study at the benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine in Boston, hypertension were instructed to try "relaxation response" - a daily meditation method develop a cardiologist. After three months of practice, 40 of the 60
patient were able to reduce their medication thanks to reduced levels of blood pressure. The meditative practice helped the body increase production of nitric oxide - a gas it can use to expand blood vessels, increasing the channels
through which blood can flow, lowering the pressure required it throughout the body.
Infographic & Illustrations: Troy Dunham | The Huffington Post.