4 Ways Meditation Changes the Brain

Learn more about the truly mind-bending (and science-backed) ways that a regular mindfulness practice can boost your health.

Medically Reviewed
a person meditating while surrounded by many people
Meditation has been shown to improve focus and concentration, and it can help regulate stress.Gary Waters/Getty Images

Meditation is a powerful tool that comes with a number of health benefits. It’s the practice of thinking deeply or focusing one’s mind for a period of time, with the goal of obtaining feelings of relaxation and inner peace.

While meditation is an ancient practice that has been around for centuries, scientists are just beginning to study its effects on the human body.

One realm of research concentrates on how meditation impacts the brain. Studies show that meditation has a variety of neurological benefits, from changes in brain volume to decreasing activity in parts of the brain involved with stress.

Below are four ways that meditation has been shown to change the brain:

1. Meditation Changes Structures in the Brain

Some studies suggest practicing mindfulness meditation can actually change the structures of the brain. A study conducted by a team of researchers at Harvard University used brain scans to determine that eight weeks of a mindfulness training program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) increased the cortical thickness in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls learning and memory and plays an important role in emotion regulation.?(1)

While scientists are still working to understand the effects of volume increases or decreases of the hippocampus, it is generally believed that increases correlate to improved emotional regulation, while decreases are a risk factor for negative emotions, like stress. Additionally, several mental health disorders, including major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are associated with decreased volume and density of the hippocampus.

The study also found decreases in the volume of the amygdala, the part of the brain involved with experiencing emotions like fear, stress, and anxiety. What’s more, the observed brain changes matched the participants’ self-reporting of their levels of stress, meaning meditation not only altered structures in the brain, but how those practicing it actually felt.

A follow-up study by the same researchers also found that changes in the brain following meditation corresponded to improvements in participants’ perceived level of stress. (2)

2. Meditation and Stress Regulation

A small study from 2016 used brain scans to analyze the effects of meditation on the brain and people’s health. (3)

For the study, researchers recruited 35 unemployed adults who were seeking employment and were under a considerable amount of stress. The participants were put into two groups for a three-day intervention: one that was taught a formal program of mindfulness meditation and one that was taught a sort of “fake” meditation program focusing on distracting oneself from worries, such as with chatter or jokes.

At the end of the intervention, participants underwent brain scans and found that those who had participated in the meditation training showed more expressive activity in the areas of the brain related to resting state.

At a follow-up four months later, those who participated in the meditation group also had lower levels of a marker in their blood that is associated with inflammation and closely related to stress. In another study, that inflammatory marker, interleukin-6, was also shown to be a key factor in how effectively the body responded to infections and injuries.

3. How Meditation Can Help Improve Focus and Concentration

In today’s busy world with its many distractions, everyone has trouble keeping focus from time to time. Perhaps not surprisingly, scientists say there’s reason to believe that meditation can help with that.

A 2013 study suggested that mindfulness meditation can decrease mind wandering and improve cognitive performance. (4) The researchers found that a two-week mindfulness meditation course helped participants’ focus and memory while completing the GRE. The training led to improved scores and reduced the occurrence of distracted thoughts.

Another study found similar results. (5) Researchers compared the brains of experienced meditators to those of people new to the practice and paid particular attention to the default mode network (DMN), or the part of the brain that is active when the person is not focused on the outside world. Essentially, it’s responsible for the wandering thoughts that appear when you’re sitting still or about to go to sleep.

The researchers found that in experienced meditators, the DMN was relatively deactivated while the participants were practicing various forms of meditation, which translates to fewer distracted thoughts than the novice meditators.

4. Meditation and Protecting the Aging Brain

Research has also suggested that meditation may help protect the brain against aging. A study?by a team from UCLA found that people who meditate have less age-related atrophy in the brain’s white matter. (6)

A follow-up study?found that meditation also appears to help preserve the brain’s gray matter, the tissue that contains neurons and is connected by the white matter.?(7)

For the study, the same researchers compared the brains of 50 people who had meditated regularly over the course of 20 years with the brains of those who didn’t. Individuals in both groups showed a loss of gray brain matter as they aged, but for those who meditated, it declined less.

The researchers cautioned that the study cannot draw a cause and effect relationship between meditation and preserving gray matter in the brain. Still, they say it is promising, and call for more research to further explore the practice’s potential protective benefits on the aging brain.

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

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  1. H?lzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, et al. Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increases in Regional Brain Gray Matter Density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. January 30, 2011.
  2. Singleton O, H?lzel BK, Vangel M, et al. Change in Brainstem Gray Matter Concentration Following a Mindfulness-Based Intervention Is Correlated With Improvement in Psychological Well-Being. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. February 18, 2014.
  3. Creswell JD, Taren AA, Lindsay EK, et al. Alterations in Resting-State Functional Connectivity Link Mindfulness Meditation With Reduced Interleukin-6: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Biological Psychiatry. July 1, 2016.
  4. Mrazek MD, Franklin MS, Phillips DT, et al. Mindfulness Training Improves Working Memory Capacity and GRE Performance While Reducing Mind Wandering. Psychological Science. March 28, 2013.
  5. Brewer JA, Worhunsky PD, Gray JR, et al. Meditation Experience Is Associated With Differences in Default Mode Network Activity and Connectivity. PNAS. December 13, 2011.
  6. Luders?E, Clark K, Narr?KL, Toga AW. Enhanced Brain Connectivity in Long-Term Meditation Practitioners. NeuroImage. August 15, 2011.
  7. Luders?E, Cherbuin?N, Kurth?F. Forever Young(er): Potential Age-Defying Effects of Long-term Meditation on Gray Matter Atrophy. Frontiers in Psychology. January 21, 2015.

Additional Sources

  • Tanaka T, Narazaki M, Kishimoto T. IL-6 in Inflammation, Immunity, and Disease. Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology. September 4, 2014.

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