The Science Behind Mindfulness Meditation
This video is part of the Mindfulness Incubator video series. (4/16)
Meditation is an ancient technique that trains the brain for the power of concentration. It’s like a gym workout for your brain. Archaeologists have found meditation to be five-and-a-half thousand years old, while only 60 years ago, modern scientists began to study the brains of meditators. They discovered that meditation changes the structure of the brain, making it a lot more powerful. Long-term meditators are often able to develop superhuman abilities like their ability to stay calm in pressure situations such as exams and sports, more original and creative ideas, and excellent memory. An experiment showed that meditating monks were able to dry icy wet sheets in cold temperatures by controlling and raising their own body temperature with the power of the mind. To understand how meditation affects us, you must first look at the most recent discoveries about the brain. In the last 10 years, scientists have discovered that every time we think, feel, or learn something new, a new connection appears in our brain. Those things that we repeat the most, like habits, make these connections grow stronger and stronger, and over time, the connections that we don’t use grow weaker and eventually disappear. This is why our habits are automatic, and we don’t have to think before doing them. For example, because you practice brushing your teeth every day, it seems a lot more effortless than washing your dishes, even though both tasks take about the same amount of time to complete. But if you stop brushing your teeth for a few days, it will also begin to seem like a more difficult task. Some scientists have suggested that we don’t choose most of our behavior; instead, it is programmed by these neural connections in our brain. Think about the tip of an iceberg, which is the smallest part. This represents all the things that we can choose consciously, such as solving a math problem. The larger part of the iceberg is all of our unconscious thoughts and feelings, which cause most of our behavior, like reacting to arguments in the same way again and again, even if afterwards we know it was wrong. This happens because we’re not aware that we are controlled by unconscious emotions. In this unconscious part of our mind, neural connections are strong, so most people don’t think they can change how they act and react in situations. This automatic way of acting is what we call personality, but mostly, it’s just those thoughts, emotions, and habits that we have repeated the most, growing up and continuing to repeat on a daily basis. But this can all be changed. Our intelligence, skills, and personality can all be developed from practice. We can literally train our brains to become cleverer, to learn new talents, or to think differently in situations. So to change ourselves, we need to change our brains by creating new connections and practicing them until they become strong and automatic. This means that stuff that we find hard now will become easier and easier the more we practice it. Think back to when you struggled to read. It would take you a while to get through a sentence, and now it’s automatic. You don’t need to stop and think about how to read words you already know; you just do it. Amazingly, meditation practice helps us change all of these things by creating new connections in many different parts of the brain, literally making your brain larger in size. So how do you practice meditation? Well, it’s really simple. All you have to do is concentrate on your breathing and allow for words and feelings to come and go. With continuous practice, your skills of attention, concentration, and awareness significantly increase. But it’s actually quite hard to concentrate on your breath and nothing else. This is because, on average, we have about 50,000 thoughts each day. Ninety-eight percent of those thoughts are the same as the thoughts we had yesterday, and 80% of those thoughts are negative—stress, worry, and irritability are direct results of those thoughts, which are either regrets about the past, which we can no longer change, or worry about the future, which hasn’t even happened yet. But we experience stress and worry in the present moment, causing us to behave in very unhelpful ways. The more we worry, the better we become at worrying, which is a negative habit of thinking that leads to continuous stress, and continuous stress leads to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Meditation has been shown to decrease the size of the amygdala, which is the fear center of our brain and is where all our negative emotions and thoughts come from. It also decreases the level of the stress hormone cortisol, which overall means that you can deal with stressful situations a lot better. With meditation, you also learn the skill of how to watch your thoughts and emotions without reacting. This means that with continuous meditation practice, you can significantly change your behavior and even your personality. This can help you to achieve your personal goals because you’re less likely to procrastinate or worry about other people’s opinions about you. Scientists are still
discovering all the other benefits of meditation, such as its ability to make you more creative, better at learning and remembering things, increasing self-confidence, and making you kinder towards other people around you. Leaders of big companies, athletes, and even pop stars use meditation as a way of training the mind, and the NHS now uses meditation to treat a variety of mental health issues. It’s even been shown that meditation is more effective than using drugs. Not bad, hey, for something all you need to do is sit still for 20 minutes, close your eyes, and concentrate.
In this age of constant hustle and bustle, where our minds often resemble a chaotic highway with thoughts zooming by, there’s a practice that’s been around for thousands of years, yet has found its place in the spotlight only recently – meditation. Imagine it as a workout for your brain, a mental gym where you can build your power of concentration.
The history of meditation dates back five and a half millennia, but it’s only been in the last six decades that modern science started peeking into the brains of those who meditate. What they found was truly remarkable. Meditation, it turns out, can reshape your brain, making it a formidable powerhouse.
Long-time meditators, the ones who’ve made this practice a part of their daily lives, often acquire extraordinary abilities. They become the calm in the storm of pressure, whether it’s during exams or sports competitions. Their minds brim with creativity, original ideas, and memory so sharp it’s almost superhuman. In one fascinating experiment, meditating monks demonstrated the incredible ability to raise their own body temperatures, drying wet sheets in freezing conditions using only the power of their minds.
To grasp how meditation works its magic, we must delve into the latest findings about the brain. Over the past decade, scientists have uncovered a profound truth: every thought, emotion, or new piece of knowledge creates connections in our brains. The more we revisit those connections, the stronger they grow. Conversely, those we neglect fade away.
This phenomenon explains why our habits become second nature. Think about brushing your teeth; it’s almost automatic. But if you were to stop for a few days, it’d feel like a daunting task. Some scientists even argue that much of our behavior is not consciously chosen; it’s driven by these neural connections.
Picture an iceberg: the tip symbolizes conscious choices, while the massive submerged part represents our unconscious thoughts and feelings that dictate most of our actions. We’re often unaware of this influence, guided by automatic responses, what we call our “personality,” shaped by habitual thoughts, emotions, and actions.
The good news? This can change. With practice, we can evolve our intelligence, skills, and even our personalities. Meditation is one powerful way to achieve this transformation. It forges new connections in different regions of your brain, effectively enlarging it.
So, how do you meditate? The concept is beautifully simple: focus on your breath, let thoughts and feelings flow in and out. Yet, maintaining this singular concentration on your breath can be deceptively challenging. Why? Well, we think a lot – about 50,000 times a day. The majority of these thoughts are the same as the day before, and a significant chunk of them is negative. Stress, worry, and irritation can be direct results of these repetitive, unproductive musings.
However, through meditation, you learn to reduce stress and enhance your self-awareness. You can watch your thoughts and emotions without immediate reactions, which can lead to significant changes in your behavior and personality.
The benefits of meditation extend beyond stress reduction and self-awareness. It decreases the size of the amygdala, the fear center of our brain, leading to less negativity. It also reduces the stress hormone cortisol, making us more adept at handling stressful situations.
Meditation can boost creativity, memory, self-confidence, and compassion toward others. It’s a practice embraced by leaders, athletes, even celebrities, and it’s increasingly used in healthcare settings to treat mental health issues. Astonishingly, it’s been found to be more effective than some medications.
So, when you think about it, dedicating a mere 20 minutes, sitting still, closing your eyes, and concentrating on your breath doesn’t seem like such a tall order, does it? Meditation offers a journey within, a path to unlock the potential of your mind and reshape your life in remarkable ways.