In recent years, meditation has become a very popular and widely recommended method for controlling one’s thoughts and emotions. One of the main reasons people practice meditation is to be more relaxed during their daily lives. The big question is if, and how, it actually works.
There are plenty of definitions for meditation, one of the simplest being a group of practices that are used to improve attention, increase awareness, and familiarize you with your mind.¹ The goal of these practices is to train your mind to remain calm in any situation or environment that you face.
There are many different types and styles of meditation practiced around the world. The two main styles that we will focus on are focused attention (FA) and open monitoring (OM).²
FA meditation requires the practicer to try and remain focused on one object or thought.³ OM meditation requires the practicer to become aware of all thoughts and emotions they are experiencing without reacting to any given one.⁴
Both FA and OM styles of meditation have the ability to adjust not only how you think, but also your brain itself. The adult brain is constantly changing and rewiring, being affected by every experience one has. Therefore, each time you meditate you are training your brain to react differently to thoughts and emotions.
So, how exactly is meditation changing your brain?
Neural Effects of Meditation on Attention
Imagine you are at your desk trying to work on a task you have been given, but you can’t seem to focus. You find your mind wandering, and you begin to think about what workout you will do that night and what you will cook for dinner.
“Mind-wandering” is the default setting for brains and is caused by activation of a neurological network known as the default mode network (DMN).⁵ Often times when your mind wanders, you begin to focus on self-deprecating thoughts, which can have negative mental and physical effects.⁶
Practicing meditation regularly can deactivate the DMN and decrease connectivity between brain regions that make up this network.⁷ This would allow someone who has practiced meditation to be able to easily recognize when their thoughts are wandering, and bring their attention back to the task they were completing.
In addition to decreasing activity in brain regions associated with spontaneous thought and distraction, meditation can also increase and strengthen activity in brain regions associated with the engagement of attention.⁸
Neural Effects of Meditation on Emotion
Meditation can also affect the regions of our brain responsible for senses and emotions. Meditation and mindfulness practices have allowed people to become more aware of their emotions and less reactive.
This time, imagine that you are at your desk and your boss tells you that you have to complete a huge project by the end of the day tomorrow. There is a good chance you will immediately experience stress and anxiety. As you may know, many emotions are represented not only mentally, but physically as well. Once your boss tells you this, you may have noticed your heart rate increased and your body became tenser.⁹
Meditation can reshape your relationship with these emotions and bodily sensations so that you can better recognize when they are occurring and remain calm.
Dereification is a process cultivated through meditation that allows you to change your reaction to emotions by recognizing that thoughts are not a representation of reality.¹⁰ In this case, you may think that you are unable to finish the project you have were assigned, but that is just a thought, not what will happen.
The use of dereification in meditation allows you to decrease your emotional reactivity to a stimulus.¹¹ In practiced meditators, there was a decrease in activity in the region of the brain associated with experiencing emotion.¹² There was also an increase in connectivity between the regions necessary for extinction learning.¹³
This means that over time, you will no longer experience such strong responses to emotions and become less reactive when faced with a situation that may be stressful or cause other strong feelings.
For a more in depth guide of how mediation affects your brain, check out our free ebook, Retrain Your Brain.
This 44-page document provides a comprehensive overview of the different types of meditations, the neuroscience behind meditation, and a step-by-step guide to successfully practice 8 different meditation techniques
Practice, Practice, Practice
Each time you meditate, you are strengthening the pathways in your brain associated with the thought pattern you are practicing.¹⁴ Therefore, it will become easier and easier the more you practice.
Now that you know the science behind meditation and how it can allow you to be more relaxed and attentive, hopefully you’re more willing to give it a try!
Anytime is a good time to start meditating, and it’s quite easy: all you need is 5 minutes in a relatively quiet environment to focus on your thoughts.
Levine, G. N., Lange, R. A., Bairey-Merz, C. N., Davidson, R. J., Jamerson, K., Mehta, P. K., Michos, E. D., Norris, K., Ray, I. B., Saban, K. L., Shah, T., Stein, R., Smith, S. C., Jr, & American Heart Association Council on Clinical Cardiology; Council on Cardiovascular and Stroke Nursing; and Council on Hypertension (2017). Meditation and Cardiovascular Risk Reduction: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Journal of the American Heart Association, 6(10), e002218. https://doi.org/10.1161/JAHA.117.002218
Wielgosz, J., Goldberg, S. B., Kral, T., Dunne, J. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2019). Mindfulness Meditation and Psychopathology. Annual review of clinical psychology, 15, 285–316. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-021815-093423
Raffone, A., & Srinivasan, N. (2009). The exploration of meditation in the neuroscience of attention and consciousness. Cognitive Processing, 11(1), 1–7. doi:10.1007/s10339–009–0354-z
Levine et al. (2017)
Heeter, C., & Allbritton, M. (2015). Being There: Implications of Neuroscience and Meditation for Self-Presence in Virtual Worlds. Journal For Virtual Worlds Research, 8(2). doi:10.4101/jvwr.v8i2.7164
Levine et al. (2017)
Raffone et al. (2009)
Heeter et al. (2015)
Wielgosz et al. (2019)
Heeter et al. (2019)