The neuroscience behind this ancient (modern) practice
Written for GQ India, 23 April 2020 Edited by Shikha Sethi
In the Age of Distraction, it can feel impossible to sit still. Between writing the first half and second half of this article’s opening sentence, I’ve scrolled through Twitter, answered a work email, had a brief conversation with my partner, and contemplated what I should eat for lunch.
Our monkey minds are all over the place, and more so after a month of self isolating, socially distancing and solid adulting. For some of us, our old buddies – sleeplessness, anxiety and stress are back, rendering us helpless. Meditation can help. But how? We checked in with holistic health coach Sumitra Daswani, founder of BornFromtheEarth.com, a nada (sound) yoga expert as well as a certified Ayurvedic nutritionist. Here are the scientific reasons why you should give it a try.
What is meditation?
Essentially, it refers to a variety of practices that are designed to provide focus, promote relaxation and increase a heightened sense of awareness. What all meditation practices have in common is the single-pointed focus of one’s attention on one object for a prolonged period of time. It could be your breath, the flame of a candle or paying attention to a particular sound. The more you concentrate on one object, the steadier the mind becomes. The lack of distraction by other thoughts turns this concentration into meditation.
What happens in your brain as you meditate?
1. Your prefrontal cortex gets stronger
Thanks to new MRI machines, now we know. These machines take both pictures of the brain and record brain activity (the earlier machines only took pictures), so we can see what areas of the brain are active at specific times. One part of the brain might light up when you’re angry, and another when you’re happy. Most importantly, we’ve come to realize the human brain is not static, as previously thought. It can be reinvented and reshaped through your thoughts and experiences.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. And we have the ability to shape our brains using mindfulness and meditation techniques.
Brain activity in people who’ve learned to meditate is different from people who don’t…even when they’re not meditating and just going about their daily tasks.
Regular meditation strengthens your prefrontal cortex. This is the part behind your forehead, which helps you concentrate, make decisions, regulate emotions and think consciously about one’s self. The thicker your prefrontal cortex, the better you’ll be at setting and achieving goals, problem-solving and focusing your attention.
The prefrontal cortex is also the area that’s more active when you’re engaged in positive behaviour. Want to be more compassionate, kind and empathetic to others? Meditate.
The left side of your prefrontal cortex – the side that controls happiness – is more active during meditation. (The right side tends to be more active when people are or depressed)
2. Your amygdala shrinks
This is your brain’s stress and fear centre, which controls emotions. The more you meditate, the less you worry and the more control you have over your emotional responses. Patience and calmness increases. Angry outbursts decrease.
3. Your hippocampus gets bigger
The hippocampus is associated with spatial awareness and memory. This can be seen in the brain scans of musicians and London’s taxi drivers (who’ve spent years memorizing the labyrinth of London streets). Intense concentration over long periods of time can help improve not just your memory on the subject at hand, but your overall memory as well.
4. Your telomeres get longer
Finally, you can turn back time with meditation’s anti-aging effects. Studies show the length of your telomeres increases with meditation, helping you generate healthy cellular aging. What are telomeres? They’re the protective protein caps at the end of your DNA strands that allow for continued cell replication. The shorter your telomeres, the more susceptible your cells are to disease and dying. Lengthen them and you’ve got an anti-aging effect.
You may be sitting down quietly, but your brain is working hard. It isn’t the easiest thing to do. We get it. Which is why we’ve put together a handy 10 Step Guide to Get You Meditating Today.
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