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You might think of meditation as just a New Age trend, but it may actually benefit your brain!

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The word "meditation" might bring to mind Yoga, and Chimes, and juice cleanses, but it isn't just some new age trend.

Meditation has been part of different cultural and religious practices around the world for thousands of years, with the earliest written records coming from India in 1500 BCE. And it turns out clinical psychologists and neuroscientists are trying to figure how it affects our minds and our brains.

Meditation is getting a lot of attention nowadays in western societies, but it's become sort of a catchall term, and the rich histories and traditions can get forgotten or mixed together. So, most psychology and neuroscience research focuses on mindfulness meditation. During a basic session of mindfulness meditation, people quietly focus their attention on one thing, like the pattern of their breath. And when their minds wander off inevitably to think about girlfriends or homework, they refocus without judging themselves for getting distracted.  The goal is to create a habit of mindfulness. Basically remembering to live in this moment instead of worrying about the future or dwelling on the past. And it seems to help with good brain well-being things.

For instance, research on small groups has found that regular meditation seems to improve your ability to focus. People who have been practicing meditation regularly for, at least, several weeks tend to score higher than non-meditators on attention tests, like trying to quickly complete a difficult puzzle, or a game that's designed to trip you up. And people who consider themselves mindful have been found to have more cognitive flexibility, like being aware that you're irritated with that dumb, hard puzzle a researcher is making you do.

Scientists have also observed that people who practice mindfulness meditation are less emotionally reactive, in other words, they're not as deeply affected by upsetting images and can better control their emotional responses to things, like not yelling when your cat jumps on your keyboard, and laughing it off instead. In one study a group of twenty novice meditators participated in a ten-day intensive workshop. Immediately afterwards they said they had fewer depressive symptoms, and spent less time ruminating, or focusing on distressing thoughts.  Other small studies have found that meditation is helpful for some mental illnesses too, especially anxiety disorders, and depression. 

So, mindfulness could be useful for general well-being, like stressful workplaces or schools, but it might also be helpful as a therapy. There's still a lot of work to be done though, most of this psychology research is on small groups of participants, and there aren't any longitudinal studies, which would follow subjects for weeks and years after they started mindfulness practice and let scientists control for more variables. So, overall, it seems meditation might be good for your mind, but does it actually affect your brain?

Your brain works because of electrochemistry. Your neurons use electrical signals to communicate. All those neurons firing together can lead to some very recognizable electrical patterns, called neural oscillations or brain waves.

Depending on what your brain is doing it generates different wave patterns which we can measure. EEG studies, which record electrical brain activity through the scalp have found that the brains of meditating people have increased alpha and beta wave activity. That activity is usually linked with relaxing things, like walking your dog, or daydreaming in class.

And fMRI studies which measure blood flow in different parts of the brain have found activation in cortical brain regions, which is the outer most layer of the brain. Those neurons are important for higher order cognitive functions, like planning, decision making and emotional regulation. In fact, scientists think that meditation can even cause long term changes to the brain.

Thanks to fMRI studies, involving people who regularly practice intensive meditation, like Buddhist monks. Tibetan monks who regularly spend time meditating on compassion have shown increased activity in the insula, a brain region associated with detecting emotions, and generating a physical response to those emotions. Also, when they're focusing on feeling love for other people, or exposed to emotion-provoking stimuli, like a picture of a sad kid with a broken toy, they have more activity in the temporal parietal juncture, which is associated with empathy.

Some researchers think that regular meditation may even help protect the brain against aging. Your brain consists of gray matter, which is mostly cell bodies and white matter, which is mostly the branched part of neurons that reach out to other brain regions. How much gray matter you have can correlate to abilities like memory, or intelligence, and as you age, your amount of gray matter shrinks.

But one study involving a hundred people found that long-term meditators lost less gray matter as they aged compared to non-meditators. Now it's worth noting that these neuroscience studies aren't perfect either. Their small groups sizes, and relatively short timelines make it difficult to say anything super conclusive about meditation.

After all, the way a Tibetan monk practices meditation isn't going to be the same as the way an American high-school student practices meditation, which can lead to totally different results. So, even though the research is promising and scientists think mindfulness has at least some benefits for your brain, there is still a lot we don't know. Thank you for watching this episode of the Scischow psychology, especially to our patrons on Patreon, who are the whole reason Scischow psychology exists in the first place.

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