Your Brain and the Benefits of Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is like yoga for the mind – it detoxifies, strengthens and at the same time improves flexibility, and we can reap these benefits by keeping up with a regular practice, sustained over a period of time.

By Vera Soh

October 7 2018

Meditation can appear to be a mysterious activity where nothing seems to be going on. I’ve spoken with many people who have the misconception that meditation is the same as sleep. Contrary to that, during the state of meditation, our brains are alert. Unlike muscular activity, meditation is often a mental activity that cannot be as easily measured by the layman. 

During physical activity, we can visually perceive changes in our bodies (from perspiration or measurement of weight, muscle mass or girth) and physically experience the effects (such as increase in heart rate or feeling of muscle soreness) almost immediately. However, the effects of mindfulness meditation are not as obvious, tangible and often not instantaneous. It is thus difficult for us to wrap our heads around meditation and how to experience it.

If you are a skeptic who needs science based evidences, there is an increasing number of researches on the effects of meditation that use modern techniques and equipment such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Electrocardiography (ECG) to observe brain activity during, before and after meditation. Meditation is no longer such a mysterious activity practiced by monks hiding in dark caves, or yogis sitting under trees. By using modern technology and controlled studies, we can ground this activity with logic, facts and statistics instead of basing claims off feelings and an individuals’ uncontrolled experiences. Understanding the benefits of meditation is crucial to one’s motivation for keeping up with the practice.

Mindfulness meditation especially affects specific parts of our brains, mainly the pre-frontal cortex, limbic system, parietal lobes, occipital lobes and temporal lobes. The pre-frontal cortex and limbic system work together and affects our sense of self, emotions, decision-making, and impulse control – basically higher function activities. The parietal lobes, occipital lobes and temporal lobes deal with the functions of the physical body. While meditation affects both the mental and physical control-centres, the most important function of meditation is to work on our attention, memory and ability to relax – functions of the pre-frontal cortex and limbic system.

Many prominent leaders such as Oprah Winfrey, Bill Ford, Lee Kwan Yew and Steve Jobs are advocates of daily meditation.

Here are six powerful benefits of meditation that can make you more productive, your relationships more fulfilling, help you to sleep better and improve your physical and mental health.

1) Clarity of Thought

 The average person thinks about 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts a day, which is 35 to 48 thoughts per minute. Meditation reduces the number of thoughts we have, thus decluttering the mind of unimportant distractions and allowing us to focus on thoughts that are truly important. 

2) Better decision making

Research done by the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute showed that meditators are able to react logically rather than emotionally when faced with an unfair situation, which helps to make decisions that are overall more favourable to them. (Read the research paper here.) Meditation helps us to remove ourselves from situations and be able to see things from a third party’s perspective, rather than a participant who is emotionally invested.

3) Increased creativity

Meditation encourages divergent thinking – meaning that we are able to think of greater number of different solutions to a problem. During meditation, we are also in a more relaxed state of mind, which sets the brain’s ‘ambiance’ up for eureka, or “Aha!” moments. 

4) Better physical health

Cortisol is a stress related hormone that causes the body to store excess fat around the abdominal region. Meditation reduces the level of cortisol in the body, which then helps to improve immunity, control and reduce the risk of metabolic diseases (such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and stroke) and even improve libido.

5) More meaningful and fulfilling relationships

Just as how we take showers to clean our physical bodies, meditation is a bath for our minds, where we clean off emotional “garbage” without simply sweeping uncomfortable emotions under the carpet. It helps us to be emotionally ready for the next good thing and emotionally present with the people around us. A research on compassion meditation done in Emory University showed that subjects’ abilities to accurately identify emotions based off facial expressions increased after eight weeks of compassion meditation. As levels of empathy increases with meditation, we can be more patient and understanding to the people around us, thus improving our emotional intelligence and relationships.

6) Improved self-knowledge

Erika Carlson from Washington University found that mindfulness meditation can be used as a tool for us to see ourselves in a non-biased, non-judgemental manner, thus improving our self-knowledge. By understanding ourselves better, we can path our actions in accordance to “who-I-am” rather than based on influence from outside factors. During meditation, sit with ourselves, listen to the conversations that go on inside our heads, yet withhold judgement of our thoughts and emotions. We experience feelings without influence from external factors, thus giving us a clearer insight into what our minds and hearts are up to. By being aware of these emotions and thoughts from an objective viewpoint, we can have a clearer perspective of what exactly triggers these feelings and thoughts.

Mindfulness meditation is like yoga for the mind – it detoxifies, strengthens and at the same time improves flexibility, and we can reap these benefits by keeping up with a regular practice, sustained over a period of time. As we go about our days with endless distractions, our bodies and minds become increasingly unaccustomed to silence and stillness. It is the stillness that we need and it is what moves us forward when we feel stuck, confused or lost. You can start your mindfulness meditation by reading this, and experience gradual, subtle but powerful changes in your life.