The benefits of meditation are well known. You get calmer, you can focus better, your stress levels are reduced and you can sleep better. But the benefits of meditation do not end with just physical reactions like improved posture or lower heart rate.
This seemingly simple exercise of closing the eyes and tuning inwards can actually make lasting physical changes in your body. Specifically, it can literally change your brain!
What is Meditation
Let’s get one thing straight first. Meditation is not about thinking about nothing, or trying to quiet the mind so that there are absolutely no thoughts. Rather, meditation is about training the mind to focus, it’s about gaining awareness about the thoughts, and creating some distance between you and your thoughts.
When you can observe your thoughts, and observe the reactions you have to your thoughts, you are getting to the point.
New connections in the brain
Grey matter is the part of the brain where the neurons are connecting to each other and this part is activated when we are learning new skills. When we meditate, we are stimulating growth of new brain cells, which means more grey matter.
As we age, we are naturally losing some of the mass of the grey matter, but meditation is said to slow down this process.
Training the Brain
The brain, like the rest of the body, is growing and developing all the time. Just like we can train the muscles in our body, we can also train the brain.
Some time ago scientist thought that the brain is what it is after our childhood, but recently the miracles of neuro-plasticity are more known, and there are more and more research results for the ability for the brain to develop and change.
Keeping the emotions in control
Meditation affects the pre-frontal cortex of your brain, which is busy making decisions and analyzing life around you. This part of the brain is responsible for problem solving and regulating emotions.
The more grey matter we have in this part of the brain, the better we are able to deal with our emotions and feelings.
Reacting less to stressors
One thing that reduces as we meditate, is the size of the stress centre of the brain, also called the amygdala. When we are stressing about something, this part of the brain is activated, and the so-called Fight-or-Flight response is initiated in the body.
With regular meditation, we can reduce the activity of the amygdala, which means that we don’t get overly anxious and stressed about things for no apparent reason. When we meditate, also the connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex get weaker, which means that we get less reactive to stressful stimuli.
Improved long term memory
Research has also found that this increase in grey matter forms in the hippocampus, the area of the brain that turns short term memories into long term memories, eg. helping us to learn and internalize new skills and information.
How much should we meditate?
To get all these wonderful effects of regular meditation, how much should we meditate? You can start with 5 minutes few times a day, and build up to 15-30 minutes daily.
Meditation and mindfulness bring a certain level of calmness into your life, and give you space to reflect on what is happening around you, instead of reacting continuously to every single stimulus that might pass you by (including your own thoughts).
You are in better control of your thoughts, your emotions and your reactions, which makes you better able to navigate in life with a purpose, instead of just drifting from one sensation to the next.
Well worth those few minutes a day, don’t you think?