Meditation shows positive effects on physical well-being and cognitive processes such as attention and concentration, regardless of culture and religiousness. With increasing meditation practice these effects increase and the conscious control of processes in the brain is increasingly improved. Simple ways to integrate meditation into everyday life are, for example, mindful eating or a more conscious use of the smart phone. But how does meditation actually work in the brain? And what does all this have to do with consciousness? An overview
Meditation and mindfulness have existed as concepts in Far Eastern culture for several thousand years. Since Siddharta Gautama – later known as Buddha – according to the legend, after years of meditation, sat down under a tree and attained enlightenment, meditation and Buddhism appear to be inseparable. However, meditative states are also an integral part of spiritual practice in Christianity and Islam, and as our daily lives accelerate, they are increasingly becoming part of a non-religious lifestyle.
Mindfulness and Meditation in Psychology
Since the discovery of meditative states in the sense of universal and culture-independent phenomena, medicine and psychology have also increasingly dealt with concepts such as mindfulness. After psychotherapy through behavioral therapy approaches first concentrated strongly on behavior and then on cognitive processes (attention, memory, own values and beliefs), the so-called Third Wave of psychotherapy shifted the focus also towards mindfulness-based interventions . With mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, a new direction in therapy was even created, which effectively treats the consequences of traumas such as post-traumatic stress disorder . Since then, meditation and mindfulness have become more common terms in the mainstream of science. But what does meditation do in our brain? And what does it have to do with our consciousness?
The Brain Profits From The Positive Effects Of Meditation
Not only the effectiveness of meditation in therapy was investigated, but also the effect of meditation on elderly people with cognitive deficits due to Alzheimer’s dementia and its precursors was examined in neuropsychology . Subjects of a corresponding study underwent an eight-week meditation training course, which lasted less than a quarter of an hour per day. Using complex imaging techniques, it was possible to detect increased activity (i.e. increased blood flow) in various areas of the brain that are involved in the so-called Default Mode Network (DMN), a network that is active in people in a resting state. This network roughly represents the basic activity when we are not focused on a specific task and is the starting point for the following concentrated activities. This resting activity of the DMN is impaired in neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s dementia , as the communication of the neurons is increasingly impeded by it – until it finally collapses. The subjects who underwent the eight-week training showed a higher cognitive fluidity in recall, i.e. they were able to name more animals within one minute, for example, and noticed a subjective improvement in their cognitive abilities.
Of course, meditation cannot stop the neurological processes once the disease has set in, but other findings show that in people with a lot of meditation practice the thickness of the cortex, the top layer of the brain, is increased in regions related to one’s body perception and attention . A thicker layer of the cortex acts as a reserve that creates a buffer during age-related decreases in brain mass, which prevents pathological phenomena such as Alzheimer’s dementia from occurring early. Instead, the previous functional level is maintained as long as possible . Meditation thus possibly contributes to this buffer as a stimulating factor for certain neuronal networks, which can also be reflected in a thicker layer in different regions of the cortex and – like a versatile and active lifestyle in general – protects against age-related losses. Because, contrary to the common saying, our brain “more is more”. More neurons and, in particular, more connections between them in neural networks protect against later cognitive impairments in old age. However, the exact effect of meditation and whether it is a specific protective factor must be examined in more detail in this context in order to prove stronger causal effects.
Meditation influences the body positively
However, meditation does not only have health-promoting effects on people with physical or psychological ailments. Meditation has had a positive effect on physical indicators such as heart rate variability among retreat participants. Heart rate variability can be regarded as a measure of the adaptability of the cardiovascular system . Retreat participants also reported increased life satisfaction and subjective well-being after only ten days. Such findings should not hide the fact that meditation needs one thing above all else: practice.
Meditation is, contrary to what is often assumed, a skill that needs to be learned and that – similar to learning to ride a bicycle, dance or a new sport – takes time. Even short meditations for a few weeks already show effects, but with increasing practice these effects increase or others are added. In one study, people who had been meditating for a long time were able to influence their brain activity more strongly in meditation exercises . When deriving the electrical activity of the neurons, people with advanced meditation experience found that these so-called electrical potentials were increasingly in the range of gamma waves, which are associated with concentration and attention processes. Somewhat less technically expressed: The vibrations that are created in our brain when nerve cells fire could be better influenced by people with longer meditation experience. And not only that. The synchronization between the two halves of the brain was also more specifically established by these advanced test persons. However, this should not discourage beginners, because here too there was a linear increase with the amount of time spent in meditation. So someone who looked back on 45 years of experience could influence “his gamma waves” better than someone who had been meditating for 15 years and someone who had only been meditating for a few months could do so better than someone who had just started. For those who don’t know much about gamma waves, some scientists have a more catchy term: consciousness. A prominent position of consciousness research consists in the hypothesis that oscillations caused by neuronal activity, which are in the frequency of about 40 Hertz (and thus in the range of gamma waves), produce our consciousness . According to this hypothesis, synchronization, i.e. the joint firing of neurons, also plays a significant role for consciousness. Both the targeted manipulation of gamma waves and the synchronization of neuron activity through meditation could therefore actually contribute to the fact that people with growing practice change attention and concentration abilities, but also influence consciousness more specifically. So, if in the future you do not want to talk about consciousness-expanding experiences during your meditation in order to avoid critical glances, you can refer to the synchronous stimulation of your interhemispheric gamma wave activity. Even if the others then no longer do so: we understand.
Knowledge in a nutshell: What should you take with you?
- Meditation affects physical parameters and processes – regardless of one’s own culture and also for non-religious people.
- Meditation changes cognitive processes like attention and concentration.
- Meditation helps healthy people and people with pathological changes in the brain regarding subjective factors such as one’s own well-being, but also affects objective aspects such as the fluidity of recall.
- With increasing experience of meditation, people can control and change processes in the brain more specifically (keyword: gamma wave activity).
- Meditation needs practice – but helps even in small doses.
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