How Meditation Affects the Cortexes of the Brain
For thousands of generations, humans have been asking the big questions about the nature of reality, like “Who am I?” and “Why are we here?”
There have been countless disciplines aiming to systematically understand the nature of the mind and its relationship to the Self. One of the oldest and most widely-studied exploration practices is meditation.
More recently, modern science has begun to translate the outcomes of meditation by identifying the health benefits, neurological changes, and incredible boosts to psychological well-being that come from a regular practice.
In many ways, meditation is the original science, where truth is sought by asking questions about the world and systematically exploring hypotheses using introspection and self-inquiry.
The major difference between meditation and modern scientific philosophy, however, is that modern science focuses only on building knowledge about the ‘external’ world, while meditators seek knowledge from the ‘internal’ world of personal experience.
Modern science has become a way for us to translate the physical and psychological aspects of meditation experiences, much like how some spiritual texts and oral traditions attempt to translate the personal aspects of these experiences.
Over 3,000 studies have been published over the past few decades on the physical, mental, and social benefits of meditation. So far, scientists have documented hundreds of observable, reliable health outcomes that meditation offers even for a practice as short as 20 minutes a day.
If you’re thinking of meditating or already have a practice, here’s what science has found that is in store for you. Get ready for these big life bonuses, which are the top findings of the past few decades:
The Neuroscience of Meditation
Why are all of these fantastic benefits possible?
Scientists who study the psychology of the physical brain have measured thousands of meditators’ neural pathways and compared them to non-meditators. The findings are incredible, and speak to what spiritual traditions have been transmitting for thousands of years.
First, there’s a part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex, which sits right at the front and center of your head, directly behind your eyes.
Many scientists call this the “Me Center” of the brain, because it’s responsible for taking thoughts and making you believe that they’re about you.
The ‘Me Center’ will take unpleasant sensations in the mind and body – like pain, fear, and worry – and create the thought “This sensation is me”.
Have you ever felt a tingling on your skin and think that there might be something bad happening to you, like a crawling spider or a rash? That’s your ‘Me Center’ processing the tingling sensation and identifying with whatever scary story arises within you.
Incredibly, the more you meditate, the more your ‘Me Center’ begins to quiet down. Meditation tends to weaken the connection between the ‘Me Center’ and the part of the brain that senses fear, meaning that meditators begin to feel a more objective and less personal relationship to their fears, anxieties, and worries.
Does that mean you won’t experience fear anymore?
Not exactly – it turns out that for meditators, a second area of the brain begins to create a new connection to your fear center called the lateral prefrontal cortex, also known as the ‘Assessment Center’. The ‘Assessment Center’ is responsible for regulating emotional responses by bypassing automatic, reactive tendencies.
This part of the brain sees the fear sensation and says “This is not me,” allowing meditators to manage the situation from a more clear, balanced perspective.
Are you ready to meditate?
The science of meditation clearly demonstrates the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of a regular practice, even if it’s only 20 minutes a day.
On top of all of these practical benefits that modern science can investigate, there is a whole spiritual and personal side of meditation that scientific experiments cannot touch.
In the end, perhaps the final frontier is not ‘out there’ waiting for research labs to send their measuring devices, but rather the answers are already inside of you, waiting for you to explore.