The Neuroscience of Meditation

Meditation can rewire brain circuits to produce salutary effects not just on the mind and the brain but on the entire body

Meditation is an ancient pursuit that, in some form, is a part of nearly every world religion. In recent years its practice, derived from various branches of Buddhism, has made its way into the secular world as a means of promoting calmness and general well-being.

Physiological changes in the brain—an altered volume of tissue in some areas—occur through meditation. Practitioners also experience beneficial psychological effects: they react faster to stimuli and are less prone to various forms of stress.

Advances in neuroimaging and other technologies have enabled scientists to gain insight into what happens in the brain during three major forms of Buddhist meditation—focused attention, mindfulness, and compassion and loving kindness.

Focused Attention – this practice typically directs the meditator to concentrate on the in-and-out cycle of breathing. Even for the expert, the mind wanders, and the object of focus must be restored. A brain-scanning study at Emory University has pinpointed distinct brain areas that become involved as attention shifts.

Mindfulness – also called open-monitoring meditation, mindfulness entails observing sights, sounds and other sensations, including internal bodily sensations and thoughts, without being carried away by them. Expert meditators have diminished activity in anxiety-related areas, such as the insular cortex and the amygdala.

Compassion and Loving Kindness – in this practice, the meditator cultivates a feeling of benevolence directed toward other people, whether friend or enemy. Brain regions that fire up when putting oneself in the place of another—the temporoparietal junction, for instance—show an increase in activity.

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Reference: Neuroscience – Mind of the Meditator – Contemplative practices that extend back thousands of years show a multitude of benefits for both body and mind. By Matthieu Ricard, Antoine Lutz and Richard J. Davidson. November 2014, ScientificAmerican.com

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