Researchers have been studying the effects of meditation on the brain for decades. They have come to some important conclusions that may offer further motivation and inspiration for consistent—and certainly for aspiring—practitioners of this time-honored healing art.
Over the years, published research has demonstrated that the practice of regular meditation can increase brain density, boost connections between neurons, decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety, provide clarity of thought, and increase positive mood endorphins. Other published studies have shown meditation can improve physical functioning, decrease chronic disease risks, and enhance overall quality of life.
These studies demonstrate that regular meditation effectively supports mental, emotional, and physical health in numerous tangible ways. In building upon this strong body of evidence, researchers are continuing to deepen our understanding of the profound and inspirational benefits of regular meditation practice in everyday life.
New Brain Benefits Revealed
Recently, neuroscientists at UCLA have shown another fascinating neural effect of regular meditation: the ability to increase “cortical gyrification” of the brain. Cortical gyrification refers to the folding of the cerebral cortex, a function that allows the brain to process information faster. The cerebral cortex is the outermost layer of neural tissue in the brain and serves an important role in controlling memory, consciousness, thought processing, decision-making, attention, and awareness. During cortical gyrification, the tissues of the cerebral cortex fold, creating indented fissures and “creases” called sulci and gyri. The sulci and gyri increase neural processing and neurotransmitter communication. In this way, increased gyrification enhances the brain’s capacity for computing information, maintaining focus and attention, creating and retrieving memory, processing logic, and forming decisions.
When the researchers compared the brains of meditators to those who never meditated, they found significant increases in cortical folding across a wide area of the brain responsible for numerous functions beyond rapid information processing and retrieval. Additional areas of the brain markedly affected by meditation involve emotional and mental health capacities, influencing processes of emotional control, heightened awareness, and introspection. This falls directly in line with some of the more noticeable results of regular meditation, which often include increased compassion for one’s self and others, enhanced self-awareness and introspection, and greater emotional stability.
Researchers also found significant increases in cortical gyrification among more experienced practitioners. In other words, the longer a person had been practicing regular meditation, the greater the beneficial changes in their brain.
Meditation Promotes Long-Term Health
As a holistic physician and meditation practitioner with more than 25 years of experience, I have always believed strongly in the mental and emotional benefits of a regular, mindful meditation practice—and the physical payoffs are equally impressive. We all know that reducing stress can dramatically improve health on a number of levels. The beneficial effects of regular mindful meditation are shown to protect against and reverse DNA (telomere) damage, boost immune function, reduce cardiovascular disease risks, decrease inflammation, improve outcomes in cancer, reduce side effects of conventional treatment, and increase vital energy and physical capacity.
As regular meditation practice becomes better understood and more widely practiced, more and more doctors and health practitioners are recommending these ancient disciplines to their patients. If you are a health provider, meditation can help you become a better healer and clinician, increasing your diagnostic and therapeutic skills significantly and allowing you to connect in more meaningful ways with your patients and community. And if you are looking for some extra healing energy to improve your own health, regular meditation can provide just the solution.
As demonstrated in the UCLA study, meditation is more effective when practiced regularly. Even just 10 minutes a day can offer significant and noticeable benefits over a short period of time. But, how do you begin?
Although there are countless styles of meditation practice, one of the most profound is the ancient Tibetan practice of Shamatha meditation. Shamatha means “calm abiding” in Sanskrit. It is intended to help people access their mind’s natural state of tranquility and clarity. The technique involves focusing the breath on a specific object, and letting go of all other thoughts as attention is consistently trained on the process of breathing. This is a great method for beginners.
Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit, and pick a small object (such as a rock) to place on the ground in front of you. Focus your eyes and your breathing on the rock, and as thoughts inevitably arise, simply acknowledge and then release them, letting them slip away with each out-breath. When your mind wanders off, gently bring your attention back to your breathing and the rock, visualizing each inhalation and exhalation going to and from the rock.
As you become more practiced with meditation, you will likely notice significant improvements in your energy, health, and mental/emotional balance. You may find that as distractions and obscurities are peeled away during mindful meditation practice, the space between thoughts becomes greater and more profound. As we slowly turn down the constant chatter of our minds, we can begin to access deeper aspects of consciousness for growth and healing. This peeling process can make room for your true inner nature of love, compassion, peace, and tranquility to arise and expand naturally, benefiting yourself and those around you exponentially.
To me, one of the most beautiful and profound aspects of meditation is that this process of growth and unfolding (as well as cortical folding) can continue throughout our lives. After all, we can never have too much love, compassion, and clarity.
By Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAC