Your brain spends every waking moment interpreting stimuli and giving your body directions on how to deal with them. That’s an attempt at the most basic explanation for the incredibly complex systems and functions housed within the organ responsible for life as we know it, but such a description makes it pretty clear how meditation plays a direct role in influencing your brain’s activity.
An unmeditated mind is a mind that’s prone to wandering. The brain perceives a stimulus and immediately attaches story and meaning to it, generating thoughts like fear, uncertainty and pain. A job interview is no longer just a job interview, it’s the pivotal moment that will decide your future happiness. A migraine headache becomes more than just its physical symptoms, it’s the pain of missed social opportunities and the frustration that the feeling isn’t going away quickly enough. Without meditation, our brains judge everything and it can drive us mad.
On meditation, the brain is a different animal. Judgments start to fall away and with them anxiety, allowing the parts of the brain responsible for feelings of happiness, appreciation and empathy to take over. Let’s get just a little bit science-y and talk about where this change goes down.
In reality, your brain doesn’t technically have a region that regulates relaxation by itself. The areas that are most closely tied with our personalities and our emotional responses are the prefrontal lobes (located, naturally, at the front of the brain) and the limbic system (located near the brain’s center). These areas are, essentially, what make us human.
At the core of the limbic system is the amygdala, a gray-matter mass that controls our “fight or flight” response and interprets stimuli for split-second emotional reactions. In the scientific world, it’s often called the “fear center.”
The communication between various parts of the prefrontal cortex and the fear center is the crux of what we end up consciously feeling. The prefrontal cortex has two main functions: to assess what’s going on, and to make it personal. Without meditation, these functions can be at odds and the “me” center tends to take over – our assessments become always self-involved, and we take on the weight of the world as a result.
Meditation doesn’t hone in on one specific brain structure; instead, it has a marked influence on strengthening the neural connections between the assessment part of the prefrontal cortex and the fear center. Those who practice regular mindfulness have a different relationship to stressors because they view them from a more rational perspective, seeing things simply as they are and not how they affect self-interests.
After only a few months of meditation, brain activity has been shown to be noticeably stronger in the prefrontal areas associated with assessment. By essentially re-routing the feedback loop from the limbic system to the assessment center, and away from the “me” center, meditation relaxes our flighty responses, lowers our fear, and helps our bodies relax.
Practicing meditation regularly is the only way to practice it. Twenty-five minutes a day can do wonders for your brain and body, and micro-meditations throughout the day are great ways to stay sharp and regain focus. The brain is never too set in its ways to change the connections that happen inside it.