Meditation and your brain

Meditation is so popular these days that it is hard to go for a wander down the street without tripping over a person or two who have adopted a lotus position by the footpath. No longer is meditation the province of the “mystic East” or even rock stars looking to make sense of speeding thoughts. So mainstream has it become that when a prominent rugby league star recently fell prey to the famed “off-field indiscretion” in an article on how he was coping it was mentioned without remark that he was still on good terms with his father to the extent that they had still meditated together. When rugby league players meditate with their dads and sports writers report it as a normal bonding activity, then meditation has become mainstream. So there is widespread acceptance of meditation but is there equivalent understanding of what it does for you? There is plenty of research on meditation and its physical and mental effects and now a new study has shown how at least one of meditation’s effects brings biology and psychology together.

The researchers for this new study noted that there are many forms of meditation but that they can be split broadly into two groups. One group they called “concentrative meditation” that features a focus on breathing or on selected thoughts in order to block out other thoughts. The other type they called “nondirective meditation”, where the person who is meditating effortlessly focuses on his or her breathing or on a meditation sound, but beyond that the mind is allowed to wander as it pleases.

Their study involved meditators experienced in the Acem meditation technique. This is a type of meditation developed on Norway in the 1960s which features mental repetition of a simple sound, called a “meditation sound”, a meaningless combination of vowels and consonants which is believed to help mind and body relax. This form of meditation falls into the nondirective category. The study used MRI technology to measure brain activity in these meditators in two different experiments.

In the first experiment brain activity in nondirective meditation was compared to brain activity when at rest. The results showed significantly increased activity in right medial temporal lobe (parahippocampal gyrus and amygdala), areas associated with attention, mind wandering, retrieval of episodic memories, and emotional processing.

In the second experiment, participants carried out concentrative meditation practicing of the same Acem technique, but this time actively trying to avoid mind wandering. In this experiment brain activity was nearly the same as when the subjects were at rest.

Based on this it appears that nondirective meditation stimulates your brain in ways that allows room to process self-related memories and emotions. That is not all meditation does for you, but it is a useful start.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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