Estimates suggest between 200-500 million people worldwide practice meditation, for reasons ranging from spiritual enlightenment to enhanced focus to improved wellbeing . Indeed, meditation has been gaining popularity, with rates in the United States tripling from 4.1% in 2012 to 14.2% in 2017 . Meditation is by no means new, though. In fact, meditation has been widely practiced in eastern countries for as long as 6,000 years. However, research into how meditation affects our brains has only really picked up steam the past two or three decades.
Luckily, in those past 30 years we’ve seen thousands of studies published on the very real benefits meditation can have. Research involving fMRI scans of the brain suggests meditation actually changes the size and strength of different regions in our brains. These changes aren’t just structural, but often lead to improvements in brain functioning that lend towards greater overall wellbeing.
What is Meditation?
When we think of meditation, many of us may picture someone sitting still and serene, cross-legged with eyes closed. However, meditation actually refers to a collection of techniques which can look and feel quite different from each other. There are really many styles of meditation.
Types of meditation include:
- Zen meditation
- Mantra meditation
- Transcendental meditation
- Focused attention meditation
- Guided meditation
- Loving-kindness meditation
- Compassion meditation
- Walking Meditation
Why People Choose to Meditate
Each type of meditation is often designed towards actualizing different intentions. Generally speaking, many begin meditating with the intent of:
- Improving focus and concentration
- Cultivating inner peace
- Strengthening emotional coping skills
- Learning to live in the present moment
- Helping to calm the busy mind
- Decreasing negative cycles of thought and emotion
- Improving overall wellbeing
- Increasing joy, happiness, and fulfillment
- Supporting greater clarity and confidence
- Deepening their spiritual practice
How Does Meditation Work?
Each type of meditation comes with its own set of practices and benefits. Many westerners are most familiar with focused attention meditation (FA meditation).
At its simplest, FA meditation involves paying attention to your breath, a mantra, an object, or a chosen intention. It trains present-moment awareness and invites the practitioner to observe thoughts that pass by. As these thoughts arise, the practitioner can observe then let them go as they return to a neutral mental space.
While FA meditation is usually done in a seated position, this is not true for all meditations. Some meditations are practiced while walking, while others are engaged as a meditative mindset throughout the day.
The Benefits of Meditation
Beyond the anecdotal, research has found that meditation practices can offer improved wellbeing for many.
The science-backed benefits of meditation can include:
- Reduced stress 
- Decreased emotional distress 
- Improved symptoms of depression and anxiety 
- Decreased pain 
- Reduced instances of insomnia 
- Decreased blood pressure 
- Improved concentration, focus, and mental performance 
The Effect of Meditation on the Brain
For as long as meditation’s been around, we’ve only recently begun to understand how it affects different brain regions. According to fMRI studies comparing brain scans of meditators and non-meditators, researchers have made some startling discoveries about the effects of meditation.
That doesn’t mean that these changes are just structural without a recognizable impact for the practitioner though. With these structural changes, practitioners often experience shifts that produce more efficient and effective brain functioning and greater wellbeing.
1. Meditation changes the size of different areas of your brain.
Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar published a study in 2011 that found meditation actually increased cortical thickness throughout the brain. Cortical thickness can be otherwise understood as the width of gray matter in the brain. Its loss is associated with cognitive decline.
Lazar found that meditation increased the size of:
- The left hippocampus (essential to learning, memory, empathy, and self-awareness.)
- The posterior cingulate (research has found that the stronger this brain region is, the less mind-wandering and “me”-focused thoughts we experience. This helps us remain in the present moment and recognize emotions as they arise without identifying with them.)
- The temporo-parietal junction (involved in compassion and empathy.)
The pons (vital to numerous brain functions, including sleep, basic physical functioning, facial expressions, and processing sensory input.)
Lazar also found that meditation decreased the size of the amygdala, our brain’s “fear” center. The amygdala is responsible for encoding memories and regulating emotions, specifically fearful or threatening ones .
2. Meditation can help with reducing anxiety.
A review of 18,753 studies published by Johns Hopkins University found that meditation could be an effective aid in reducing anxiety symptoms. The review found that mindfulness meditation had a consistent and significant effect on anxiety comparable to modern antidepressants.
Another way of looking at it: over the course of two to six months, mindfulness meditation had an effect size of 0.22-0.38 for anxiety symptoms . Conversely, antidepressants tend to have an effect size of 0.30 .
3. Meditation can help with depression.
The same Johns Hopkins review also found meditation as effective as many modern antidepressants in relieving depressive symptoms . Harvard researcher, neuroscientist, radiology instructor, and meditation practitioner Gaëlle Desbordes took their findings one step further.
In a five-year study, Desbordes found that mindful attention and compassion meditation training decreased scores of depression. However, contrary to Lazar’s findings, meditation actually seemed to simultaneously increase activity in the amygdala.
Desbordes suggests the answer may lie in the compassion meditation involved. Meditation may have increased her patient's capacity for compassion even as they experience their symptoms. This may facilitate faster recovery from and decreased identification with negative experiences .
4. Meditation helps slow age-related gray matter loss.
Put simply, gray matter is the outermost layer of our brain. It takes up roughly 40% of our brain and is responsible for our senses (e.g., seeing, hearing, speaking, feeling, and memories). Starting in our mid to late twenties, we naturally begin losing gray matter as we age. This gray matter loss is associated with decreased mental performance, in addition to Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease.
A group of researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles decided to compare the difference in brain scans between 50 people who’d meditated for years, and 50 individuals who hadn’t. They found that while gray matter volume declined for everyone, it declined at slower rates for meditators. This suggests that meditation could offer protective effects against cognitive decline and help preserve gray matter .
5. Meditation strengthens our ability to focus.
Italian neuroscientist Guiseppe Pagnoni was curious to explore the effects of meditation on focus. In examining the difference in brain scans between meditators and non-meditators, he found that meditators demonstrated greater stability in their ventral posteromedial cortex (vPMC). The vPMC is related to mind-wandering and spontaneous thoughts. His study shows that meditation may help strengthen the vPMC. This could make it easier for people to rein in distracting thoughts and regain focus more quickly .
6. Decreases mind-wandering part of brain (aka our “me-center”)
In comparing the brain scans between meditators and non-meditators, researchers at Yale found that meditation decreases activity in the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices. These regions of the brain are otherwise known as the default mode network (DMN), which has been linked with mind-wandering .
While we might think of mind-wandering as daydreaming, mind-wandering has actually been linked to greater levels of unhappiness. In this way, meditation may support greater happiness by strengthening our ability to stay in the present moment.
7. Meditation increases our capacity for compassion towards others.
A collection of studies have found that meditation increases our sense of compassion and willingness to give to others. One study found that compassion meditation in experienced meditators actually prompts their brains (specifically the insula) to begin preparing their bodies to physically go and help someone .
Another study conducted at the Max Planck Institute in Germany found that meditators engaged with empathy at higher rates. Participants’ brain activity was recorded as they were told to watch a gruesome video and empathize with someone suffering. The participants were then given compassion meditation training, and asked to complete the task again.
The first time participants saw the footage, their own pain circuits lit up like they were experiencing the suffering themselves. However, after compassion training, the brain regions associated with love and warmth lit up. This difference in activity is essential, as when we’re dealing with our own pain, it’s difficult to help others. Being able to empathize with others without becoming overwhelmed is essential to taking action and offering help .
Looking to get started with your own meditation practice, but not sure where to begin?
- Read about the number of people practicing meditation worldwide and Prince Harry’s journey with meditation HERE >>
- Discover the increase in meditation’s popularity with the NCCIH HERE >>
- Explore the effects of a five-minute meditation on health professionals HERE >>
- Learn about the results of a systematic review of over 18,000 meditation studies, HERE >>>
- Read about how meditation can help with insomnia HERE >>
- Explore the American Heart Association’s statement regarding the benefits of meditation HERE >>
- Discover the University of Washington’s study on the effects of meditation on focus HERE >>
- Read Harvard Neuroscientists Sara Lazar’s study on how meditation changes structures in our brain HERE >>
- Learn about the effect size of modern antidepressants HERE >>
- Read Gaelle Desbordes study on the effects of compassion meditation on depressive symptoms HERE >>
- Explore the UCLA study on how meditation can slow age-related cognitive decline HERE >>
- Discover Pagnoni’s study on how meditation impacts the vPMC HERE >>
- Read the study exploring how meditation impacts our default mode network HERE >>
- Explore a study on how compassion meditation makes it easier for us to give help HERE>>
- Learn compassion training impacts neural plasticity and our ability to give HERE >>