Meditation is the new yoga. Katy Perry does it. So does Oprah. The only thing this trend’s missing is a super-pricey brand of clothing designed to allow freer, more-relaxed movement of your mind. (And yes, you should jump on that idea, stat.)
But in an age when everyone shifts from computer to iPhone to TV to tablet with hardly a break, evidence is piling: A little meditative respite is just what your brain needs to de-stress, focus, and gain some healthy perspective. Whether you practice the transcendental or “mindfulness” style of meditation, your brain will change for the better, studies show.
The Immediate Impact
Like the muscles in your arms or abs, the parts of your brain you exercise the most, grow the strongest. So whatever you do on a daily basis—drive to work, tweet, email—the networks within your noodle handling those behaviors get buff, while other, neglected areas grow weak, studies show.
The moment you start meditating, you’re activating those areas of your brain that are often neglected, especially those tied to regions like the lateral prefrontal cortex that manage anxiety, emotion, and fear, explains UCLA clinical psychiatrist Rebecca Gladding, M.D., in her book You Are Not Your Brain. Within 15 minutes, this shift in activity can lower your heart rate and calm your nervous system, shows research from the Institute of Medical Sciences in India.
After a Few Weeks of Practice
The more you practice meditation, the more you pump up those parts of your brain that help control emotion and anxiety responses, shows research from Johns Hopkins University. Why is that helpful? A lot of your daily stress comes from fretting about things that might happen (like arriving late to work or failing to meet a deadline), as well as over-inflating the fallout from minor issues, the Johns Hopkins research indicates. These worries fire up your brain’s fight-or-flight mechanisms, including the release of cortisol, which turbocharges stress responses, finds research from the University of California, Davis. But by working out the areas of your brain that cut off these unreasonable anxiety responses, meditation lowers your cortisol levels and mellows out your over-active stress reflex, the Indian research shows.
After 8 Weeks
Brain scans show two months of meditation can boost your noodle’s grey matter density, particularly in your hippocampus, according to research from Massachusetts General Hospital. The hippocampus helps manage learning and memory, as well as self-awareness. And so these grey-matter gains help explain why studies have linked meditation to improved cognitive function and better emotion regulation, says Sara Lazar, Ph.D., senior author of the Mass General study. The same brain scans revealed that meditation causes a drop in grey matter density in the amygdala, which lights up when you’re freaked out or stressed, the study shows. This may also help explain how meditation helps you manage anxiety, the Mass General authors say.
In the Long Run
Continued meditation may promote growth in your brain’s insula, which helps regulate your gut-level responses to life’s day-to-day issues and social interactions, research reveals. This may further play into meditation’s stress-reducing powers, and also hints at the practice’s ability to help you empathize and connect with others, Gladding writes. Amped up levels of stress hormones like cortisol throw off your body’s sleep and eating schedules, which can leave you frazzled and unable to control your appetite. By lowering your brain and body’s cortisol output, meditation can help you sleep more soundly at night, and can even help you avoid binge eating, demonstrates research from Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center.