From OM To OMG: Science, Your Brain, And The Productive Powers Of Meditation

Using fMRI scans, we can now see what meditation does to the brain. The author suggests it can lead to a happier, more productive, and creative life. And even two minutes a day can do wonders.

Ever since my dad tried to convince me to meditate when I was about 12, I’ve been fairly skeptical of this practice. It always seemed to be so vague and hard to understand that I just decided it wasn’t for me.



More recently, I’ve actually found how simple (not easy, but simple) meditation can be and what a huge benefit it can have for my day-to-day happiness. As an adult, I first started my meditation practice with just two minutes a day. Two minutes! I got that idea from Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits blog, where he points out how starting with a tiny habit is the first step to consistently achieving it. So even though two minutes won’t make much difference, that’s where I started.

Whether you’re as skeptical as I used to be, or you’re well ahead of me with a meditation habit of several hours, I think it’s always interesting to find out how new habits affect our brains. I had a look into meditation to see what’s going on inside our brains when we do this, and what I found is pretty interesting.

What is meditation?

There are different ways to meditate, and since it’s such a personal practice there are probably more than any of us know about. There are a couple that are usually focused on heavily in scientific research, though. These are focused-attention, or mindful meditation, which is where you focus on one specific thing--it could be your breathing, a sensation in your body or a particular object outside of you. The point of this type of meditation is to focus strongly on one point and continually bring your attention back to that focal point when it wanders.

The other type of meditation that’s often used in research is open-monitoring meditation. This is where you pay attention to all of the things happening around you--you simply notice everything without reacting.

What happens in your brain when you meditate

This is where things get really interesting. Using modern technology like fMRI scans, scientists have developed a more thorough understanding of what’s taking place in our brains when we meditate, kind of similar to how scientists have previously looked at measuring creativity in our brains.

The overall difference is that our brains stop processing information as actively as they normally would. We start to show a decrease in beta waves, which indicates that our brains are processing information, even after a single 20-minute meditation session, if we’ve never tried it before.

In the image below you can see how the beta waves (shown in bright colors on the left) are dramatically reduced during meditation (on the right).

Below is the best explanation I found of what happens in each part of the brain during meditation:

Frontal lobe

This is the most highly evolved part of the brain, responsible for reasoning, planning, emotions, and self-conscious awareness. During meditation, the frontal cortex tends to go offline.

Parietal lobe

This part of the brain processes sensory information about the surrounding world, orienting you in time and space. During meditation, activity in the parietal lobe slows down.

Thalamus

The gatekeeper for the senses, this organ focuses your attention by funneling some sensory data deeper into the brain and stopping other signals in their tracks. Meditation reduces the flow of incoming information to a trickle.

Reticular formation

As the brain’s sentry, this structure receives incoming stimuli and puts the brain on alert, ready to respond. Meditating dials back the arousal signal.

How meditation affects us

Now that we know what’s going on inside our brains, let’s take a look at the research into the ways it affects our health. It’s, in fact, very similar to how exercising affects our brains.

Better focus
Because meditation is a practice involving focusing our attention and being aware of when it drifts, this actually improves our focus when we’re not meditating as well. It’s a lasting effect that comes from regular periods of meditation.

Focused attention is very much like a muscle, one that needs to be strengthened through exercise.

Less anxiety
This point is pretty technical, but it’s really interesting. The more we meditate, the less anxiety we have, and it turns out this is because we’re actually loosening the connections of particular neural pathways. This sounds bad, but it’s not.

What happens without meditation is that there’s a section of our brains that’s sometimes called the Me Center (it’s technically the medial prefrontal cortex). This is the part that processes information relating to ourselves and our experiences. Normally the neural pathways from the bodily sensation and fear centers of the brain to the Me Center are really strong. When you experience a scary or upsetting sensation, it triggers a strong reaction in your Me Center, making you feel scared and under attack.

When we meditate, we weaken this neural connection. This means that we don’t react as strongly to sensations that might have once lit up our Me Centers. As we weaken this connection, we simultaneously strengthen the connection between what’s known as our Assessment Center (the part of our brains known for reasoning) and our bodily sensation and fear centers. So when we experience scary or upsetting sensations, we can more easily look at them rationally. Here’s a good example:

For example, when you experience pain, rather than becoming anxious and assuming it means something is wrong with you, you can watch the pain rise and fall without becoming ensnared in a story about what it might mean.

More creativity
As a writer, this is one thing I’m always interested in and we’ve explored the science of creativity in depth before. Unfortunately, it’s not the easiest thing to study, but there is some research into how meditation can affect our creativity. Researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands studied both focused-attention and open-monitoring meditation to see if there was any improvement in creativity afterwards. They found that people who practiced focused-attention meditation did not show any obvious signs of improvement in the creativity task following their meditation. For those who did open-monitoring meditation, however, they performed better on a task that asked them to come up with new ideas.

More compassion
Research on meditation has shown that empathy and compassion are higher in those who practice meditation regularly. One experiment showed participants' images of other people that were either good, bad, or neutral in what they called “compassion meditation.” The participants were able to focus their attention and reduce their emotional reactions to these images, even when they weren’t in a meditative state. They also experienced more compassion for others when shown disturbing images.

Part of this comes from activity in the amygdala--the part of the brain that processes emotional stimuli. During meditation, this part of the brain normally shows decreased activity, but in this experiment it was exceptionally responsive when participants were shown images of people.

Another study in 2008 found that people who meditated regularly had stronger activation levels in their temporal parietal junctures (a part of the brain tied to empathy) when they heard the sounds of people suffering, than those who didn’t meditate.

Better memory
One of the things meditation has been linked to is improving rapid memory recall. Catherine Kerr, a researcher at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and the Osher Research Center found that people who practiced mindful meditation were able to adjust the brain wave that screens out distractions and increase their productivity more quickly that those that did not meditate. She said that this ability to ignore distractions could explain “their superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts.” This seems to be very similar to the power of being exposed to new situations that will also dramatically improve our memory of things.

Less stress
Mindful meditation has been shown to help people perform under pressure while feeling less stressed. A 2012 study split a group of human resources managers into three, with one-third participating in mindful meditation training, another third taking body relaxation training, and the last third given no training at all. A stressful multitasking test was given to all the managers before and after the eight-week experiment. In the final test, the group that had participated in the meditation training reported less stress during the test than both of the other groups.

More gray matter
Meditation has been linked to larger amounts of gray matter in the hippocampus and frontal areas of the brain. I didn’t know what this meant at first, but it turns out it’s pretty great. More gray matter can lead to more positive emotions, longer-lasting emotional stability and heightened focus during daily life.

Meditation has also been shown to diminish age-related effects on gray matter and reduce the decline of our cognitive functioning.


Getting started with Meditation

Here’s a great infographic that gives an overview of the different kinds of meditation and some tips for fitting in meditation at work.

An awesome app to get started with meditation--Getheadspace
Note from Leo: One of the best apps I’ve come across to help you get started with Meditation is called Headspace. Invented by a former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe, this is meditation geared towards busy people like you and me.

The way it works is that Andy guides you through 10 minutes of simple meditation every day. You don’t have to do anything; just sit down and turn on the app and let Andy’s calm voice (his voice is truly amazing--the app is worth trying just for that!) explain to you how to approach meditation.

The best part about the app is, of course, that it’s completely free! For any beginning meditator, this is the best option I’ve come across to start reaping the amazing benefits of meditation and start on a new path to a happier life.

Over to you now. Have you played with the thought of meditation or have you been doing it before? I’d love your comments on the topic--so email me!

--Beth Belle Cooper is a content crafter at Buffer, a smarter way to share on Twitter and Facebook. Follow her on Twitter at @BelleBethCooper

Reprinted with permission from Buffer.

[Image: Flickr user Betty Nudler | Free Meditation, Keith Ramsey ]

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14 Comments

  • Helen Zelinski Rutland

    Good article due to its great content. I find simply meditating for 2 minutes is addictive and I need and want more. The results are addictive. My Yoga Swami has written a great easy to understand book available online http://www.shivayoga.org.au/happy/ It teaches you to find stillness and to discover the journey to your self. It also comes with a CD with yoga guided meditations. Be happy everyone.

  • Thanks for a great article Beth! (Again!) I'm an artist and writer who has practiced meditation for thirty years and have experienced many benefits through meditation - mental, emotional, and physical. I've read many articles and books on meditation and yours is concise and practical. I particularly like the science you've incorporated in this piece. I'd love to see your reading list. Here's my recommended reading list on meditation - http://bit.ly/JYl99t

  • Justarand Omname

    Thank you Beth. This is just what I needed to know. It's also just the right article to go on my "EnlightenMankind," page on facebook. So thanks. I'll also check out that app :)

  • Laurie

    Your subhead lists the App as "Getheadspace" which is not the correct name for the App.  The correct name is "headspace" which is listed in the paragraph that follows so I assume the mistake in the subhead is a copyedit mistake.  May want to fix if possible. Thanks for the tips

  • Albert Ng

    The infographic is too small - can't read any of the text on there even after saving and zooming in more. Could you please reupload a better quality image?

  • joyfulstar

    an important method for to be in real  profound contact with our-self releasing this  -- help for to reflect - to choice - to work to life better releasing our-self under pressure . 
    Miles thousand different method -- we reflect , work and life in béta ( 1 type of cerebral activity wave ) 
    in meditation they are alfa , théta etc detected .
      to use without limits /day 
    Relax 

  • troublebunny

    Interesting and inspiring article! But it would be even more so without the distracting typos....slow down, Fast Company....take a few minutes to proofread!

  • Kristoffer Carter

    Beth! What a phenomenal job you've done building such an exhaustive case... Very grateful to have received this from a pal today. Fast Co does a great job with their typesetting as well, which only helps people #receive this important message. I'm in the early stages of organizing a company-wide meditation practice for our company, Centro. Our CEO gave us the OK for all employees to go silent for 15 min every afternoon across all timezones. It has become a great way to unplug, and refocus. Obviously, keeping everyone inspired and practicing is the heavy lifting. It's articles like these that give a yogi brotha some HOPE. hahaha. I'm a kriyaban yogi and raja yoga practitioner. Just trying to inject the profound goodness I've experienced with all of my work brothers and sisters.

    Thanks again, Beth. Really great work here! -kc

  • Cher Holton

    Great article! As corporate consultants, we use a process we  created called Inner Focus with managers, to help them be ready for specific events (giving a negative feedback review, attending a controversial meeting, working with a tough client, etc.) It is really the meditation process, without the baggage that word tends to carry. I love the easy-to-understand science you have provided, which brings such credibility to this technique. If only everyone would give it a try! Thank you for providing such an extensive and articulate discussion!