Conquer Your Fears! How Mindfulness Meditation Reshapes The Brain

Mindfulness meditation is probably one of the most powerful tools at your disposal for improving your brain’s capacity.

Neuroscientists are now understanding that the underlying mechanisms for this are due to physical changes in brain structure, as Sara Lazar elaborates about in her presentation below.

Sara Lazar - TEDx - How Meditation Can Reshape Our Brains

5 Ways Meditation Changes the Structure of Your Brain
By now, it is a known fact that meditation improves cognition, mood, memory, learning and helps to reduce anxiety. Much research has also proved that it helps us to be more aware of our emotions, ourselves as well as our connectedness to the world around us – but how exactly does it do this?

Meditation has been shown to have an impact on more than 10 areas in the brain, mostly increasing the size of grey matter in those areas! Let’s take a closer look.

1) Hippocampus & Prefrontal Cortex
The first and foremost regions of interest with regards to meditation are the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex[1]The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: Larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter. Both of these areas of the brain are associated with learning, memory and rational cognition.

Meditation was shown to increase multiple areas in both of these regions, suggesting that it helps with neurogenesis, neuroplasticity, preventing cognitive decline as well as improving outcomes of neurodegenerative disorders.

It also means that it will likely help one to focus better and think clearer, particularly pertaining to logical tasks such as mathematics, language and problem solving in general.

2) Anterior Insula & Amygdala
In multiple experiments, mindfulness meditation shows strong correlations with emotional awareness, reduction of anxiety and even boosting our capacity for feeling compassionate!

When examining the structure of the brain, meditation appears to increase the size of the Anterior Insula[2]Investigation of mindfulness meditation practitioners with voxel-based morphometry, which is primarily required for emotional intelligence and awareness. This means that it will improve our ability to positively reflect over and control our emotions, without just reacting instantaneously the moment they arise – a very useful skill in many situations!

Meditation also happens to shrink the size of the Amygdala[3]Mindfulness meditation training alters stress-related amygdala resting-state functional connectivity: a randomized controlled trial, which is responsible for fear-based responses. This sheds much light on how it reduces stress and why even for months after meditation, individuals still experienced reduced levels of anxiety.

When we feel fearful or stressed, the amygdala communicates with the insula which forms the beginnings of our emotional response to stress. Meditation also shows a positive result in terms of not only shrinking the amygdala, but also deactivating this connection, allowing us to feel less emotional when under pressure!

3) Temporo-Parietal Junction
The Temporo-Parietal Junction (TPJ) is a very interesting region of the brain, which was also shown to be significantly increased by meditation[4]Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density.

This is a part where the temporal lobes join to the parietal lobe. It is responsible for helping to process visual and auditory sensory input, which suggests that meditation helps us to take in more information from our surroundings than those who do not meditate.

The TPJ is also involved in our ability to understand others as well as perceive what others think about ourselves. This means that meditation directly enhances our capacity for compassion and empathy, not just on an emotional level but also on a cognitive one!

Furthermore, this is a crucial area of the brain for interpreting morals and distinguishing the right behavior from wrong behavior. Therefore, it’s safe to say that meditation can even enhance a person’s ethical capacity, depending on their system of morals.

In conditions such as Autism and Alzheimer’s Disease, this region of the brain is often shown to be impaired.

This expresses itself in both of these conditions as well as other mental disorders where the patient is no longer able to discern or regard how they are being perceived by others or whether their actions are right or wrong. This is yet another field in which mindfulness meditation can help those with mental health problems and prevent neurodegeneration.

4) Cerebellum
Some data shows that mindfulness meditation grows the size of the cerebellum, which indicates that it can even help us to have improved physical hand-eye coordination.

The cerebellum has been shown to process signals relating to attention, focus, and language, as well as motor control, balance, precision and accuracy in terms of timing.

These are all factors that mindfulness meditation can help to improve, although the most notable effects in this regard are related to improved focus which can helps us to carry out physical tasks more effectively.

5) Brain Stem
Lastly, mindfulness meditation increases the size and functioning of the brain stem[5]Long-term meditation is associated with increased gray matter density in the brain stem, which is involved in all automatic processes of the body.

This makes sense as mindfulness meditation contributes to making us less reactive. The brain stem is responsible for our immediate reactions, physical or emotional.

The brain stem also governs movements that we don’t think about such as the beating of our hearts, breathing, and blinking. It also selectively sorts out signals coming in and out between the brain and body, helping to process information as the first point of contact. Since meditation increases its size, it suggests that we would be able to process more sensory input as well as carry out all bodily functions with more efficiency.

Mindfulness Meditation For Beginners
There are many different forms of mindfulness meditation, from breathing techniques to progressive relaxation. The one thing they all have in common is practicing our ability to selectively focus our attention on either our body or our surroundings.

For those just starting out, a guided meditation where a speaker takes you through the meditation can be very helpful.

Enhance your focus, reduce stress, and get a grip on how you perceive the world through learning how to meditate!
Tai Chi As A Form of Physical Mindfulness Meditation
Some of the research suggests that Tai Chi elicits many of the same structural responses in the brain as seen in both meditation and physical exercise[6]Can Taichi Reshape the Brain? A Brain Morphometry Study. Knowing this, one could practice both meditation and exercise at the same time using Tai Chi as a means to tie it all together.

If you are interested in learning Tai Chi, the best way is to find a practitioner in your area. If you can’t do that so easily, however, then here are some great instructional DVDs to get you going!

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