By Caitlin Brown
As humans, we possess a gift unique to the animal kingdom: the gift of reflection — evaluating the past and planning the future. This evolutionary advancement unfortunately comes with major drawbacks, particularly, the emotional price of anxiety and worry and the inability to stay in the present moment (which explains why “mindfulness” has become such a buzzword and seems such a challenge). Ugh, the agita.
Research shows that the more time we spend mind-wandering (the average human brain spends almost half the time frenetically jumping from place to place), the less happy we are, and life is short. Who doesn’t want to be happy?
Luckily, there is a tool we can use that doesn’t cost a thing or require any equipment to calm our mind and help us stay present: meditation.
Recent advances in two scientific areas, neuroimaging and neurochemistry, shed light on the measurable brain changes that result from meditation and improved cognition/mood.
Modern neuroimaging (think MRI machines) provides more detailed brain maps/scans than ever before, showing the long-term effects of meditation on neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to form connections, specifically in response to learning or experiencing something new.
We exercise our bodies to keep them healthy; we need to do the same for our brains. Practicing being present through meditation strengthens neural connections. It also helps prevent atrophy and functional decline. Positive effects have been seen in long-time meditators who practice just ten minutes a day. To those who claim they don’t have the patience or the time, it’s a practice to develop, try finding ten minutes when you may have to sit with yourself anyway… on a train to the city, at the nail salon, while you’re on a long traffic line waiting to pick up a child after sports practice.
Our brain ages, but meditation can have a remarkable effect on the process. A Harvard study by Sarah Lazar found that the brains of 40- to 50-year-old meditators are similar to those of non-meditators in their 20s; gray matter increases in the prefrontal cortex, improving focus, problem-solving, and emotion regulation.
The limbic system, which is responsible for behavior, emotions, and survival instincts, is also affected. Meditation has the power to take us out of “fight or flight” and into rest response which is hugely important when it comes to mental well-being. It has also been shown to increase serotonin levels, without the side effects of SSRI’s (synthetic antidepressants), making it a promising complementary therapy.
If you need more reasons to try meditation, consider that it literally changes your configurations. Among the key benefits are:
Increased serotonin: Serotonin helps regulate mood. Low levels of usable serotonin are associated with depression.
Dopamine regulation: Dopamine acts as your body’s reward system, and dysfunction is associated with addiction. Research suggests that meditation results in improved self-regulation.
Cortisol reduction: Cortisol is a stress hormone. When your baseline increases and levels are too high for too long, it can lead to inflammation and weight gain.
Norepinephrine reduced: A decrease in norepinephrine, or adrenaline, means fewer stress hormones in your system.
Increase in gamma-aminobutyric acid: This counteracts anxiety and stress symptoms and leads to more relaxation.
All of this payoff (meditation changes our neural configurations for the better), and little effort is required: just an open attitude, a comfortable seat, a quiet space/setting and your own focused attention and relaxed breadth for a few minutes each day to just be (centered in the present).
The fact of the matter is: meditation works. It’s a practice and over time, it becomes easier. Most importantly, the practice can have a huge and lasting effect on your mental and physical well-being. Change your mind and live your best life!