Your brain is one the most complex objects in the known universe, and in terms of synapses it’s at its most complex when you’re about twelve months old. This early phase is a critical moment in your development, your mesh of neurons is being worked at by the chisel of experience, to reveal the finished product; a mind adapted uniquely to your environment. You were learning to see, hear, touch, move and emote, but also how to empathise and read the cues of your caretakers. Scientists have only observed a few of these incredibly intense critical ‘learning periods’ over the course of a lifetime1 , and unfortunately they seem to trail off after adolescence.
Intuitively most adults recognise this reality by observing their own lives. The window of opportunity for rapidly enlarging our dossier of languages, talents and knowledge closes fairly quickly after we pull away from our teenage years. The baby’s mind is like a kaleidoscope of melding ideas and memories in perpetual evolution, the adult brain on the other hand has about as much variation as a season of Scooby Doo. However you needn’t despair just yet dear reader, contemporary science is revealing a pathway back to childhood like levels of neuroplasticity, and it’s one anyone with thirty minutes a day and about three squared feet of floor can exploit. Meditation, which predates Cleopatra, could be one of the most effective learning tools in the modern world, according to science.
It has been dubbed one of the few activities to allow us to dip back into the aforementioned critical learning zone, allowing us to raise our neuroplasticity closer to childhood levels12. This can help with anything from learning organic chemistry to connecting with your emotions, or even settling anxieties and becoming the ‘eye of the storm’ in high stress scenarios. Yup, pretty badass.
*The above are all long time meditators, except for Donald, whose morning hair routine leaves little time for anything else, I’d imagine.
The science of the practice often associated with Buddhism or wandering sadhus has come leaps and bounds in the past decade. By imaging the brains of expert meditators with over ten thousand hours of sitting accrued under their kneecaps, and even complete novices with all the calm of a whippet at a fireworks display, scientists have determined that meditation is directly linked to changes in our neurobiology.
Studies that show significant, positive changes in the brains of meditators are numerous and cover a huge range of cognitive abilities. For want of space here I’ll discuss one particular attribute meditators possess which could be of interest to the average person, namely increased grey matter density in their brains. Grey matter density is associated with a number of desirable characteristics, in general a youthful mind, sharp memory, perception and effective emotional regulation.
A number of studies have shown that even introductory practice can induce improvements in grey matter density. Consider two studies investigating novice meditators who’ve only practiced for a maximum of 6 – 8weeks, all with fairly moderate session times of 30 minutes per day3. Even with such a short average practice they experienced significant changes in grey matter density across their brains, and of particular interest, in the hippocampus. This region is involved in the formation of new memories, but it is also related to emotional regulation and intelligence. People with PTSD or depression usually have shrunken Hippocampus’ with a lower gray matter density, a predicament they share with alcoholics and smokers. This has lead to grey matter being associated with a healthy and effective mind in neuroscience.
Unfortunately grey matter density decreases steadily with age past adolescence, and as a result a number of it’s associated attributes such as memory and perception also decline as we get older. This appears to be an inescapable fact of life, the crows feet and loose skin of the brain so to speak. Only expert meditators can fend of such cognitive aging, or even beat it by increasing grey matter over time as demonstrated in some case studies.
The latter example was observed by neuroscientists at Geothe University in 2009 when they tested a number of highly advanced meditators. They conducted a study comparing the cognitive performance and reaction speed of a group of young adults in their early 20s and a group of long term meditators who were all over fifty. Amazingly the older group outperformed the younger group by a statistically significant margin (see Scientific American Mind 15 for the full article, well worth a look).
I can imagine that at this point the skeptical or curious reader would be interested in the actual procedure and content of a cognitive test that may be used in these studies. Most of them observe a combination of reaction speed and processing. For instance consider a fairly recent study which investigated the ‘frame rate’ of human experience, that is the ability of the mind to distinguish two events in time. Just as you observe a difference between the frame rate of modern, 60fps productions and an old Laurel and Hardy skit, scientists also observed frame rate variations in the conscious experiences of individuals4.
When we perceive an object or emotion our mind mentally blinks so to speak i.e. We’re largely unaware of other stimuli as our brain is already occupied. This can be intuitively felt by a subject easily enough, but it can also be measured by showing participants a stream of events which include two target events, T1 and T2, and then measuring their ability to notice/distinguish T1 and T2.
Conducting such a study is simple, yet it gives insight into the inner world of the subjects. In this particular investigation those who had practiced vipassana for three months were significantly better at resolving the two events in time compared to those who had never practiced vipassana. Brain imaging revealed that the vipassana group used less mental resources to process T1, thus freeing up mental ‘space’ to for the perception of T2 to occur. In general terms the meditating individuals were more perceptually aware, both of individual events and the totality of sensory perceptions which they’re receiving, which agrees with other studies and anecdotal reports outlining the experience of those who meditate.
It’s hard to describe exactly what improved abilities all of these studies hone in on, as the range is quite vast. The bulk of findings show that meditation improves our ability to detatch from emotions and stimuli as shown in the last study mentioned, making people essentially less transfixed by stimuli and potentially less distracted.
Grey matter findings in the hippocampus indicate a significant improvement in the ability of meditators to regulate their mood and focus on thoughts of their choosing, that is an improved mental will which could translate into positive focus over negative focus should the meditator choose. An invaluable benefit of the practice, and a key part of buddhist philosophy. A more developed mental will can equate to the ability to choose compassionate thoughts towards others and ones selves, and exercise restraint in moments of volatility or negativity5.
The latter point is hard to stress enough. The human brain is prone to attach to fearful thoughts and resentments, unfortunately, as this is an excellent investment for an animal in the wild. It pays dividends in the nature to remember the type of animal that ate grandad, so you can avoid more of the same. However this mental trait in the modern world is leading to a leveling off in our happiness. Although people become more wealthy and comfortable they’re levels of negativity and anxiety aren’t diminished, this is known as hedonistic adaptation. Meditation allows you to significantly trim this negative focus of the mind by becoming consciously aware of it, thus increasing your baseline happiness irrespective of your external surroundings :). It is in theory completely possible to be a street sweeper with a neurobiology more conducive to happiness than a top CEO.
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”
― Marcus Aurelius
There are more benefits than I can rattle off here, and piles of studies, but I’d recommend trying Vipassana to see what you make of it. Meditation really is an exploration of your own self and mind, and in this way its benefits are unique to every individual. It can help you to come into touch with your deeper emotions, master yourself and connect with others. Hopefully this has persuaded you to give it a shot, or if you’re already practicing, to double up.
References (They’re all studies pretty much, I put links for convenience)
1 Scientific American Feb 2016
5 A randomized controlled trial of compassion cultivation training: Effects on mindfulness, affect, and emotion regulation, Motiv Emot (2014) 38:23–35.