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For those of you who are curious as to how meditation changes the brain, this is for you. Although this may be slightly technical, bear with me because it’s really interesting. The brain, and how we are able to mold it, is fascinating and nothing short of amazing. Here are the brain areas you need to know:
What’s interesting about the Medial PreFrontal Cortex (mPFC) is that it actually has two sections:
In contrast, if you meditate on a regular basis, several positive things happen. First, the strong, tightly held connection between the Me Center (specifically the unhelpful vmPFC) and the bodily sensation/fear centers begins to break down. As this connection withers, you will no longer assume that a bodily sensation or momentary feeling of fear means something is wrong with you or that you are the problem! This explains, in part, why anxiety decreases the more you meditate – it’s because the neural paths that link those upsetting sensations to the Me Center are decreasing. Said another way, your ability to ignore sensations of anxiety is enhanced as you begin to break that connection between the unhelpful parts of the Me Center and the bodily sensation/fear centers. As a result, you are more readily able to see those sensations for what they are and not respond as strongly to them (thanks to your strengthened Assessment Center).
Second, a heftier, healthier connection forms between the Assessment Center and bodily sensation/fear centers. This means that when you experience a bodily sensation or something potentially dangerous or upsetting, you are able to look at it from a more rational perspective (rather than automatically reacting and assuming it has something to do with you). For example, when you experience pain, rather than becoming anxious and assuming it means something is wrong with you, you can watch the pain rise and fall without becoming ensnared in a story about what it might mean.
Finally, an added bonus of meditating is that the connection between the helpful aspects of the Me Center (i.e. dorsomedial prefrontal cortex) – the part involved in processing information related to people we perceive as being not like us – and the bodily sensation center – involved in empathy – becomes stronger. This healthy connection enhances your capacity to understand where another person is coming from, especially those who you cannot intuitively understand because you think or perceive things differently from them (i.e., dissimilar others). This increased connection explains why meditation enhances empathy – it helps us use the part of the brain that infers other people’s states of mind, their motivations, desires, dreams and so on, while simultaneously activating the part of the brain involved in the actual experience of empathy (insula). The end result is that we are more able to put ourselves in another person’s shoes (especially those not like us), thereby increasing our ability to feel empathy and compassion for everyone.
Essentially, the science “proves” what we know to be true from the actual experience of meditating. What the data demonstrate is that meditation facilitates strengthening the Assessment Center, weakening the unhelpful aspects of the Me Center (that can cause you to take things personally), strengthening the helpful parts of the Me Center (involved with empathy and understanding others) and changing the connections to/from the bodily sensation/fear centers such that you experience sensations in a less reactive, more balanced and holistic way. In a very real way, you literally are changing your brain for the better when you meditate.
In the end, this means that you are able to see yourself and everyone around you from a clearer perspective, while simultaneously being more present, compassionate and empathetic with people no matter the situation. With time and practice, people do truly become calmer, have a greater capacity for empathy and find they tend to respond in a more balanced way to things, people or events in their lives.
However, to maintain your gains, you have to keep meditating. Why? Because the brain can very easily revert back to its old ways if you are not vigilant (I’m referencing the idea of neuroplasticity here). This means you have to keep meditating to ensure that the new neural pathways you worked so hard to form stay strong.
To me, this amazing brain science and the very real rewards gained from meditation combine to form a compelling argument for developing and/or maintaining a daily practice. It definitely motivates me on those days I don’t “feel” like sitting. So, try to remind yourself that meditating every day, even if it’s only 15 minutes, will keep those newly formed connections strong and those unhelpful ones of the past at bay.
Addendum: For those wanting to start a meditation practice or who might be experiencing emotional issues, memories, etc. when meditating, please seek out an experienced medtiation teacher. I have received some comments from people stating they do not believe meditation works (which is likely true for some people) or that it could be harmful if done incorrectly. Obviously, meditation has been very positive for me, but I have always worked with a meditation teacher or mentor and I would suggest you do the same, as a teacher can help you figure out what is right for you and guide you through any difficulties you may be having.
Rebecca Gladding, M.D., is an author of the book, You Are Not Your Brain, co-written with Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D. Dr. Gladding served as a clinical instructor and attending psychiatrist at UCLA and was featured in A&E’s critically acclaimed series Obsessed. She is an expert in anxiety, depression, mindfulness and the Four Steps. More of Dr. Gladding’s excellent articles can be read on her blog Use Your Mind to Change Your Brain on PsychologyToday.com.
This article was originally published on PsychologyToday.com.