The practice of meditation is ancient, as you well know. Examinations of how meditation interacts with human physiology began in the 1950’s whereas the first clinical studies of the practice arose in the 70’s (Loizzo, 2014). From then, and more recently – in Westernized countries – the practice of meditation has become a mainstay staple to excelling one’s being, and health overall. Jon Kabat-Zinn a house-staple name within the branch of mindfulness defines the discipline as one of attention. Whereas, within the new brand of meditation, one that is more well-known and further studied, it is commonly branded now as contemplative neuroscience. According to Loizzo 2014, meditation can slow the progression of age-related cognitive decline. Even positive neural changes and activity have been surmised in the same way as seen with seasoned meditators as for novices.
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Now, let’s get straight into the benefits of meditation. Gray matter, is the smart part of the brain; referring to neuronal bodies, glial cells, dendrites, and axons, wherein the synapses make connections with brain cells and help you think via the corresponding neurotransmitter. A study in 2009 by Vestergaard-Poulsen et al. found that, compared to control, practicers of mediation have a greater gray matter density. These areas of growth are noted primarily in the brain stem and the medulla oblogonta.
The medulla oblogonta primarily handles parasympathetic physiological functions such as breathing, heart-rate, and body temperature, to name a few. Neuronal connections exist between motor and sensory regions of the body that both execute and inform of these bodily functions back to headquarters (the brain). The brain stem is, in a way, the beginning of the spinal cord and bottom of the brain. The brainstem includes the pons, midbrain, and medulla oblogonta.
The most notable changes in gray matter density are evident in an asymmetric fashion, wherein primary densities exist in “dorsal regions on the left (in the solitary nucleus, the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus) and in ventral and more caudal regions on the right (approximate center in the reticular nucleus of the medulla/nucleus ambiguous)” (Vestergaard-Poulsen et al., 2009).
As the section in which this article is so aptly house, eufrontality is a concept that hypothesizes that mediation is a positive benefactor of the brain’s prefrontal cortex (PFC) (Loizzo, 2014). Meditative practice increases the activity of the prefrontal cortex as noted through studies utilizing functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) (Lee et al., 2018). The prefrontal lobe is the executive functioning station of the brain. Here, the brain handles such complex thinking as sociality, emotional processing, and decision making (or inhibition of bad decisions). Meditation has shown to increase cortical density in regions of the prefrontal cortex as well as those areas previously discussed, which helps with those brain functions just mentioned, including more specifically emotional regulation and resilience (Loizzo, 2014).
The limbic system of the brain, which is responsible for supporting emotional social decision-making and behaviour, is poorly controlled when the PFC is underactive. An example would likely be what happens when college fraternity members get sauced and steal the competitions mascot. As you now know, alcohol results in PFC inhibition in this way. More so, those quick-to-poor decisions or anger often have an overactive amygdala and underactive PFC root. Meditation reverses this, via disconnecting decision-making from such a direct and causal link with the reptilian part of the brain, the amygdala.
Compassion and amygdala response are contradictory. Porges’ polyvagal theory, deduces with the myelinated vagus nerve that operates and connects with the the brain stem and the medulla oblogonta, supporting the neuropeptides of parasympathetic and physiological functioning: vasopressin and oxytocin – key players in social bonding (oxytocin is directly responsible for the bonding between a mother and her child). The vagus nerve includes it’s four branches: trigeminal, facial, glossopharyngeal, and accessory. This nerve and branchings are utilized for social functioning such as facial and vocal recognition (Loizzo, 2014). Compassion meditation is one such way in which these benefits and processes are found
Here’s the kicker.
Meditative practice is able to build the brain as well as social empathy and interactiveness. And, it might just help you make better decisions, feel more relaxed and positive, and generally just a nicer person to be around. I’m sure we can agree we all want that for the world.
So, go meditate and enjoy the good karma.
Lee, D. J., Kulubya, E., Goldin, P., Goodarzi, A., & Girgis, F. (2018). Review of the neural oscillations underlying meditation. Frontiers in neuroscience, 12, 178.
Loizzo, J. (2014). Meditation research, past, present, and future: perspectives from the Nalanda contemplative science tradition. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1307(1), 43.
Vestergaard-Poulsen, P., van Beek, M., Skewes, J., Bjarkam, C. R., Stubberup, M., Bertelsen, J., & Roepstorff, A. (2009). Long-term meditation is associated with increased gray matter density in the brain stem. Neuroreport, 20(2), 170-174.