Inquiry

Meditation changes our brain

In Boston college, there is a labyrinth behind Baptist library. It is not simply a labyrinth, but an opportunity for meditation. By walking through the labyrinth, I first thought seriously about the idea of meditation. In my life, I have heard so many mysterious stories about the benefits of meditation; that it made people change their perspective on life; they feel happier than before; they notice their pulse on their nose; it even somehow cures their illness. All these things sound to me quite unbelievable and not even realistic. In their description, meditation is like a magical ceremony in which people can sit down for a while and then are transformed by supernatural forces into a higher level of a human being. I wonder if these benefits of meditation really exist, or it is only a personal feeling or even an illusion?

To better examine this question, I think it is helpful to understand the process of meditation first. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines meditation as “to engage in mental exercise (such as concentration on one’s breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness.” We can see that meditation is mental exercise. It is easy to think about physical exercises first, in order to understand the mental one better. When people are doing physical exercises like running, they are training their muscles to make them stronger. Mental exercises work the same way, but it strengthens a special part of our “muscles”, the brain. Even though our brain is not really a muscle, it can become stronger with meditation, just like the muscle. Alice G. Walton had a similar idea in her article “7 ways meditation can change your brains”, she said, “Meditation is, after all an active form of brain training.” Since meditation is all about brain exercises, then the benefits of meditation should be able to be observed and measured by brain activities. 

After understanding meditation as measurable brain activity, now we can look into some of the common benefits of meditation to see if there is scientific proof of them. First, meditation can help people to have a higher level of external attention, which means to notice the things that they often ignored. For example, When I was walking on the street, I often looked down at the road instead of pay attention to the trees, the sky, or the people passing by. I felt I missed the beauty of nature and only thought about myself or the place where I about to go. This made me felt sad and disappointed with myself. There is a special practice during the meditation called “effortless awareness” which provides a resolution to this practical issue. Kelly Loch said, “Effortless awareness means to have the most natural kind of awareness. The adjective ‘effortless’ means without our help or effort.” in her article “ How to Practice Effortless Mindfulness”.She explains this process of meditation as restored the most natural way of thinking which requires no additional help.  In real life, people often ignore things because they are so obvious and naturally occurs without our awareness, like breathing. This explains why I often ignore those trees on the road because they are always there which are so obvious to me. The process of effortless awareness during mediation helps people to focus on this obvious thing that people would often ignore.

 In order to prove this benefit actually exists, a group of scientists tried to find the correlation between the “effortless awareness” with the part of the brain called PCC (Posterior cingulate cortex), which is a part of the brain that processes self-related thinking. During their experiment, they asked a group of long term meditators to perform effortless awareness, while they are using EEG to measure the activities of PCC during the whole process. And the results are that their PCC is less active in their brain during the process, which means that a person will have a high level of external attention since they are focused less on themselves (Van Lutterveld). This is a very carefully set up experiment, which measured the benefits of effortless awareness, by EGG testing. They use the EGG data to indicated the decreasing activities in PCC. For me, this is is a strong scientific proof that the benefit of meditation actually exists. The result of the experiment can change people’s perception of meditation. They can now understand the benefits of meditation are not some abstract feeling, but an actual decreasing activity in the brain. This also means that practicing effortless awareness can indeed help people to care less about themselves, and even noticed the beauty of the environment that they often missed.             

Another important benefit of meditation is that it reduces symptoms of depression, anxiety, and pain. Professor Lamoureux said, “meditation is one of the most effective ways to reduce depression”(interview). Professor had proved that meditation is very useful to reduce depression. This benefit can be measured by the level of activation in the “Amygdala”, part of the brain that processes negative emotions. In the experiment performed by Mei-Kei Leung and his colleagues, they choose two groups of people. One group practiced the ABCM ( awareness-based compassion meditation), the other group only practiced simple relaxation exercises. Then researchers showed negative images and videos to these two groups of people to test their amygdala activities during this process. The results show that the ABCM group exhibited significantly reduced anxiety and amygdala activity during negative emotion processing compared to the relaxation group. Furthermore, ABCM participants who performed longer-term of practice had greater amygdala activity reduction during negative emotion processing. By giving the comparison between these two groups, the scientists avoid the bias that decreasing activities of the amygdala is due to the simple relaxation of the body. Since the ABCM group’s results are clearly less active compared to the relaxation group, there is a strong relationship between practicing meditation and decreasing activities in the amygdala. And a long time of meditation practice can furthermore reduce anxiety and pain. This shows that meditation indeed helps people to reduce negative emotions and anxiety. 

 When people are practicing meditation, there is less activity that happens in the amygdala (mentioned in the last paragraph), which means less usage of this particular area. Beyond decreasing the activities of the amygdala during the time of meditation, long term practiced can also decrease the size of the amygdala, which in other words reshapes the amygdala in the brain permanently.  As a result, the effect of meditation can be extended beyond the time of meditation. In 2011, Sara Lazar and her team at Harvard found that the long-term practice of mindfulness meditation can actually decrease the brain cell volume of the amygdala. For me, it is very reasonable that the volume of the amygdala decreased over long-time practices of meditation. If the area of the brain is less-used for a very long time, it will decrease in size. Just like the process of human evolution losing the tail. The tail is no longer need to keep the balance for us, so after a very long time of evolution, the tails are getting smaller and smaller, and then eventually dispersed. I am not suggesting that the amygdala will disappear by practicing meditation, but I am trying to say that with less usage of the amygdala, the size of it could become smaller permanently. Decreasing the size of the amygdala is scientific evidence that proves the benefits of meditation in a clear and measurable way.  

This relationship works the other way around as well. Hippocampus is part of the brain, that “plays important roles in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory, and in spatial memory that enables navigation”(Wikipedia). Increasing activities in the hippocampus for a long period of time could increase its cortical thickness, which means have a better memory. In the reach of Front Psychol, he obtained “high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging data from 30 long-term meditation practitioners (15 men/15 women) and 30 well-matched control subjects (15 men/15 women) to assess if hippocampus size difference in the brain. The result is that hippocampal dimensions were enlarged both in male and in female meditators when compared to sex- and age-matched controls.”(Psychol 3). The experiment shows that by long term practiced of mediation, the hippocampal dimensions are enlarged due to the increasing activities of meditation. It just like when people are practicing their leg muscles when they are running and after a long term of running, the leg muscles are getting bigger and bigger. The brain works the same way as the muscles. The process of mediation is like running, and long term of practice will make the hippocampal dimensions larger like the leg muscles. This further proved that the process of meditation is an accessible way to train our brains. And the benefits of the training are clearly showing by the increasing size of certain parts of the brain.   

After seeing all these experiments, now I realized that mediation as a practice of the brain and the process is not mysterious. Also, the benefits of meditation are not only the illusion of mediators but observable changes in brain structures that can be measured. So I went back to the labyrinth and walked mindfully, focusing on the awareness of my surroundings. When I reached the center, I felt peaceful in my heart, and I started to hear the sound of the traffic on the road and noticed the leaves on the trees. I can now feel the benefits of meditation and I think the process of meditation can actually change our life by training our brain. However, it is a tragedy that there are not many people on the campus who actually know about the labyrinth. This makes me very sad that such a useful place is being ignored. I hope by reading my essay, more and more people can realize the benefits of meditation, and use the labyrinth as a tool to help them live a better and happier life.   

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