3 Ways Meditation Helps Your Brain

Photo by  Toa Heftiba  on  Unsplash

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

by WITHIN Cofounder Hannah Knapp

It's such a hot topic these days, you'd think mindfulness was something new. Of course, it isn't - people have been practicing mindfulness meditation for, literally, thousands of years - but there's been an explosion of research about how it affects our brains in the past ten years. That research has pushed meditation into the mainstream, particularly in healthcare and psychology.

People are getting pretty excited about the possibilities for using meditation to treat all kinds of conditions - particularly related to stress, anxiety, and depression - and to develop  mindsets that give our sense of well-being a boost.

Of course, not all scientific studies are rigorous, but even discounting those that don't have sufficient controls or otherwise don't measure up, there's still a promising body of research. Here are three of our favorite ways meditation has been proven to help your brain:

  • Increase your attention span: In a world where everything and everyone is constantly trying to get our attention - whether it's the apps on our phones, our bosses, or our friends - cultivating the ability to pay attention is becoming a lost art. Mindfulness meditation increases your ability to stay focused and resist distraction.

  • Be more at ease: When your mind wanders, it usually wanders to things that stress you out: you're worrying about something that might happen, or brooding over something that already did happen. By bringing your attention back to the present moment, mindfulness meditation decreases the time you spend wandering into these unhappy places. As you practice over the long term, your brain has less activity in its "default network" (where that rumination happens), even when you're not meditating. That means you're spending more time at ease, and your sense of well-being increases.

  • Bounce back from stressful situations: Practicing mindfulness meditation over time decreases activity in your amygdala (where your fight/flight/freeze reaction lives) and increases activity between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex (where your higher-level thinking happens). This means that when something triggers your stress response, you recover from it more quickly. Experiencing less stress in and of itself is a fantastic benefit, psychologically, but add in the boost your whole body gets from being less stressed, and practicing meditation becomes one of the best things you can do for your overall health.

For a fantastic deep-dive into the research on meditation, check out Altered Traits, written by journalist Daniel Goleman (of Emotional Intelligence fame) and neuroscientist Richard Davidson.

What books and articles do you love about the science behind why meditation works? Tell us in the comments below!