This is Your Brain on Meditation

I recently purchased an an audio book on entitled “Meditations to Change Your Brain: Rewire Your Neural Pathways to Transform Your Life” by Rick Hanson and Rick Mendius. The authors, a neuropsychologist and neurologist respectively, have done extensive studies on the eastern traditions of Buddhism, meditation and yoga and how they impact the brain. I highly recommend this audio book, as it not only discusses the science behind these traditions, but it also incorporates several different guided meditations that are designed to change your brain. As you can imagine, this is a topic that resonates with me greatly, so I figured I’d try to distill some of the information that I’ve learned from their book and share it with my readers.

What is Suffering?

In Buddhism, there is a concept known as suffering or dukkha. The way I see it, “suffering” is synonymous with pain, anxiety or stress.  Anything that causes discomfort in our daily lives, be it conscious or unconscious.  But, as it turns out, we’re all hard wired to experience discomfort and suffering. Why? Because it’s one of the primary mechanisms through which life has been programmed to survive..

As human beings, there are six main reasons why were are biologically predisposed to this stress and anxiety.

Organism-World Distinction
Every organism needs to know the boundaries between itself and everything else. For most animals, it our skin. But even down at the cellular level, every cell must know the difference between itself and another cell. This creates a duality in our perception: there’s me and then there’s not me (or the rest of the world).

The existence of this boundary allows our brains to more quickly process information and threats.  It’s an easy way for our brain to cut tasks in half to make them more manageable: inside stimuli vs. outside stimuli.

But when you go down to the atomic level, this distinction doesn’t exist. The atoms in your skin are bumping right up next to the atoms in the air and on whatever it is you’re sitting on at this moment. At the same time, there’s a constant exchange of matter and energy. You eat food, which breaks it down into chemicals, to fuel your body with energy, to allow it to function and do all the tasks that we ask of ourselves every day. At the same time, your body is constantly trading oxygen for carbon dioxide. Atoms outside our bodies become part of us and our atoms become part of our environment through these processes. A year from now, 98% of the atoms in your body will not be the same ones that are in your body today.

But, as our brain tries to maintain the illusion that we are separate and distinct from “everything else”, we forget that deep down we’re not any different from our own environment, which creates suffering as a byproduct. It’s the conscious and unconscious fear of the unknown. The fear of things that are “not me.”

Identification with the body
Our brains not only have to monitor all of the internal and external activity, but there also has to be functions that are watching all of this activity and responding to it. There are circular circuits in the nervous system specifically designed to watch the function of other systems in the nervous system. Someone has to fly this ship, right?

So, let’s pretend for a moment that your body is a like a plane. The control panels in the cockpit  panel are like the insula portion of the brain monitoring all of the various activities: the RPM of the engine, the altitude, the internal temperature, etc. The pilot is the brain, helping to make decisions based on all of this data. In the same way that a pilot identifies with the ship as being part of himself:  “I’m comin’ in for a landing!”, “I’ve got a bogey on my tail,” etc. the brain does the same thing with our bodies. It creates a sense of self:  “I am my body.”

When you think about your body in this way, we begin to relate external experiences with ourselves, explaining why we take things personally. All of the various drama and stories that we witness, we envision it as happening to ourselves — causing suffering or stress.

Anxiety of Survival
All animals have it imprinted in their DNA that they have to do whatever is necessary to survive. Throughout human history we’ve been trying to protect ourselves from being the prey of some predator. Our brains are programmed to constantly scan our environment for potential threats. Even when we’re asleep, our brains are ready to act in a moment’s notice if there’s a threat. So much so, in fact, that our circadian rhythms cause us to wake up on average ten times a night to check the status of the outside environment.

This internal warning system is constantly engaged in measuring the risk of potential threats to our existence.

Maybe now you can start to see now why meditation and yoga are so beneficial. These activities allow us to focus solely on the internal stimuli and thus relieve the brain of some of its duties of worrying about external “threats”: things going on at your job, in your personal life, your grocery list, etc.  But, I think this also can help explain why we all find the practice of meditation so challenging.

Our Ever-changing World
Everything changes. The planet is constantly changing — rivers, tectonic plates, the wind, trees growing, etc. The same holds true for the rest of our universe — everything is always in a constant state of flux — up until the inevitable point at which, billions of years from now, Earth and our entire solar system will be consumed by the sun. So, if everything is always changing, that means that we always need to pay attention. Nothing will ever be still for one moment.

Maintaining Equilibrium
So at the same time that we’re trying to adjust to all of this external stimuli, we have the exact same thing going on internally. We encounter input all day, from all different sources that our brain constantly has to process. Neurons are constantly firing to perform different tasks, sending and receiving information from the other systems in our bodies. Then, add in the constant death and rebirth cycle of all of the neurons themselves. All the while our complex systems of the brain are trying calibrate itself to the equilibrium point from all this stimuli. Quite a Sisyphean task!

But while all of this helps us to survive, you can probably imagine how this might deter us from being able to quiet down our minds.

Seek Pleasure and Avoid Pain
Lastly, the most basic questions that any cellular organisms is faced with is: approach or retreat. Absorb or reject. For us humans, we view this behavior as the concept of likes and dislikes. It’s what motivates our species towards pleasure and makes us retreat from pain, anxiety, discomfort.

Dealing with Suffering or Stress
So.. how do we combat this? We need to take some time out each day to quiet our minds and reduce the inputs that our brain needs to try to register. But, just like any other activity that you do: doing a sport, writing, playing music, drawing, difficult conversations, selling cars, it requires practice. Practice makes perfect, right?  Meditation and yoga are just two examples of that focus on turning inwards on ourselves and allowing our brain to focus on the internal systems and thus temporarily reduce our suffering and stress.

From a physiological perspective when we meditate there are three main areas of the brain that are activated: The orbital frontal cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula.

The orbital frontal cortex is the portion of the brain located directly behind the eyes and it’s responsible for all the executive functions of the mind. It’s the CEO:  Evaluating tasks, Keeping everything on task, Making decisions, etc. It takes the lead in organizing the neurological activities required.

The ACC, or anterior cingulate cortex, is the portion of the brain that controls attention. It’s job is to keep your mind focused on the tasks you’ve assigned to yourself. Located just behind your “third eye” the ACC lights up during to keep your focus during meditation on the breath, your posture, your mantra. It’s the portion of the brain that keeps yelling “Shut Up, I’m trying to meditate!”

The insula is the located near the ACC, but it straddles the right and left hemispheres of the brain. It’s the internal monitor of the systems, but it also insula: Near the ACC on both sides of the brain. Senses the interior state of the body, but it is also the bridge between the thinking and feeling portions of the brain. If it sense pain somewhere, it sends this signal to the pre-frontal cortex to decide what to do with this information.

Scientists have observed other peole that perform similar inward-focused activities and they’ve seen similar patterns in brain activity. For example, in studies in which the brain activity was measured in monks and nuns during their spiritual activities, they found these same areas of the brain light up. So, if you think about it, religion is more connected through neurology and biochemistry than in the principles of the religion itself.

So, what does meditation do to your brain?

Just like muscles, when you use various parts of the brain for these tasks, they get stronger. Meditation trains our attention and interoception: our gut feelings and intuition. It improves our self-awareness and self-understanding.  Meditation also trains what’s known as our our meta-attention, which is how we attend to attention. This is particularly useful when trying to teach ourselves new things.

Brain activity in the insula has been linked to a human being’s capacity for empathy — a social skill to communicate with other people.  MRIs have shown that the more we experience empathy, the more our insula lights up. At its root, empathy is our sense of compassion, loving kindness and how relate to other human beings. It allows us to communicate with other beings because we can understand their wants and needs. This also allows us to connect to other people because we know what they’re going through. In fact, neuroscientists have found that some of the exact same cells in our insula activate just as if we, ourselves, were feeling that feeling.

Meditation is also found to release chemicals in our brain associated with pleasure such as dopamine and norepinephrine. It’s as though our own brain is rewarding us for doing this practice.

By working our ACC, we’re strengthening the ties between what we think and what we feel. The more we do this, the more we wire these connections together — which helps improve overall brain function. Deterioration in the ACC has been known to cause diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Dimentia.

Meditation also has more permanent effects on the brain. For example, people who meditate more frequently are often found to be sending out brain waves that signal that they are content and happy. It’s also been found to increase serotonin levels in the brain, which also leads to our overall happiness.

People who meditate often have more brain activity in the left frontal lobe of the brain which are generally used to promote positive feelings, compared to the right frontal lobe which promotes negative feelings. Regular practitioners are also found to have thicker brain layers in the areas that relate to attention (up to 1mm in some cases!). The thicker the brain matter in these regions, the more brain cells, the stronger they become.

Most importantly, the practice of meditation seems to have a “dosing” effect on the brain. What this means is that the more you meditate, the more these changes occur in the brain and the longer they last. Just like weight training, the more you work out the more muscle you’ll build, the longer it would take to lose it.

When scientists measure the brain states during meditation, what they’ve found is that it generally triggers the exact same portions of your brain that are associated with all of the other pleasurable activities that you enjoy in your daily life. So as you get better at meditation, you are thus strengthening your brain and teaching it how to deal with day-to-day stress, increase attention at work, and do more critical thinking. All this, while being rewarded at the same time.

So, what are you waiting for?