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The (Surprising!) Things Meditation Does to Your Brain

by Julia McVeigh |

We know that there’s anecdotal evidence that meditation makes us feel better. After all, when we meditate, we often feel more relaxed and clear-headed and less anxious and distracted. But there’s plenty of empirical evidence that meditation actually triggers some pretty amazing changes in our brain, too. Here are just a few of them.


Grey Matter Matters


One of the most remarkable things that meditation does is to increase both the amount and density of grey matter in the brain. For those of you who aren’t anatomy and physiology geeks, grey matter is a critical part of our brains. In short, it contains most of the brain’s neuronal cell bodies, which is a fancy was of saying it helps us process information. Without it, we’d be slack-jawed, disorganized and, well, scatterbrained. (See what we did there?)


Regular meditation has not only been shown to prevent the atrophy of grey matter (due to aging), it’s also been shown to increase its density in key areas of the brain. These areas include the left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation and the temporo parietal junction, or TPJ, which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion. So can meditation help sharpen your mind and render more compassionate? If these changes indicate anything, the answer is a resounding “yes.”


The Increase and Decrease of Brain Region Size


Furthermore, studies have underscored that meditation can actually change the size of certain areas of the brain. Researchers found that the amygdala – aka “the fight or flight” part of the brain associated with fear and stress – got smaller with regular meditation. On the other end of the spectrum, meditating promoted an increase cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs things like learning and memory. Both of these changes are fascinating proof of what we already “know” meditation can do: Enhance our ability to be present and reduce anxiety.


Shutting Down “Me” Thoughts


Perhaps most interestingly, regular meditation plays a role in decreasing activity in the part of the brain called the default mode network (DMN). This network is responsible for stuff like mind wandering and self-referential thoughts. So, in theory, regular meditators experience less activity in those parts of their brains, rendering them more focused and less… self-involved.


It all makes sense now, right? So the next time you roll your eyes at the thought of “staying in the moment,” know that if you practice the idea for long enough, your brain just might start adjusting accordingly.