what does meditation do to the brain

How meditation impacts brain health

You might turn to meditation as a way to find inner peace and improve your mental well-being. But do you know about its surprising effects that go beyond how it makes you feel? 

It’s true: Meditation can actually change the way your brain processes information. So if you’re curious to understand more about the transformative effects of meditation on your brain, then keep reading. (The science is fascinating.)

What is meditation (for beginners)?

Meditation is practiced across continents and cultures and takes various forms. Its essence lies in cultivating mental clarity and emotional calmness through focused attention. It typically involves setting aside a dedicated amount of time for deep breathing, visualization meditation, body scan meditation, or some other meditative technique. The goal of meditation is to train your mind to focus and quiet down, so that you can become more aware of your thoughts and emotions.

And here’s the good news: Meditation is not limited to yogis or experts! It can take forms like mindfulness-based stress reduction or simply finding relief through breathing exercises in daily life, all of which are accessible to any skill level. 

Meditation and the brain

Again, meditation often starts with a simple goal: to calm your mind and improve your focus. But it can also do so much more. 

Recent research has shown that regular meditation can actually have a profound impact on the brain. More specifically, meditation can lead to positive changes in brain structure and function, including increased gray matter volume and improved connectivity between different regions. 

The brain before meditation

To help explain how meditation impacts brain health, let's first take a look at the typical state of a brain that is not currently engaged in meditation practices. Unfortunately, the typical non-meditative mind can be filled with stress, anxiety, and cognitive overload. 

Stress is a prevalent issue in today's fast-paced world. Many of us find ourselves constantly juggling multiple responsibilities, which can lead to chronic stress. This state of constant pressure can negatively affect our mental and physical health, manifesting as increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and disrupted sleep patterns. Furthermore, stress can impair cognitive function, making it harder to concentrate and think clearly.

Anxiety is another common issue that many people face. It can range from mild unease to overwhelming feelings of panic and fear. Anxiety can be triggered by various factors, such as work-related pressures, social interactions, or personal challenges. These anxious thoughts can consume our minds, making it difficult to focus on the present moment and enjoy life to the fullest.

Cognitive overload is a term used to describe the overwhelmed state of our brain when we are bombarded with excessive information and stimuli. In today's digital age, we are constantly exposed to a barrage of notifications, emails, and social media updates. This constant influx of information can overload our cognitive capacities, leading to decreased productivity, decision fatigue, and mental exhaustion.

So, what happens to the state of your brain during meditation? 

Your brain on meditation

Instead of engaging in chaos, the brain is guided toward calmness and acceptance during meditation.

In fact, studies show that meditation can decrease activity responsible for daydreaming and wandering thoughts after a single session. 

This is all possible because during meditation your brain waves exhibit distinct patterns, such as an increase in alpha and theta waves. Alpha waves reflect a state of relaxation and calmness, promoting a sense of inner peace, and theta waves are associated with deep meditative states, enhancing introspection and creativity. 

Neither of these brain waves are as consistent when you’re not actively meditating. Instead of alpha and theta waves being dominant in daily life, other brainwave frequencies, such as beta waves, may be more prominent. Beta waves are associated with alertness, focus, and active thinking. So, when you're not meditating, your brain waves tend to reflect a more alert and active state of mind compared to the relaxed and introspective state during meditation.

Now you might be thinking: Do these benefits still linger after you’ve finished meditating? 

The brain after meditation

The short answer to the above question is: Yes! However, after a meditation, the benefits may show up a little differently, affecting these key areas of the brain: 

  • The prefrontal cortex: Responsible for decision-making, this brain area is strengthened and refined through meditation, leading to improved focus and self-control. 
  • The amygdala: Known for its role in processing emotions, this area shrinks and becomes less active through meditation, resulting in decreased anxiety and less stress. 
  • Hippocampus: Meditation has been found to stimulate the hippocampus, a region involved in learning and memory. This can enhance cognitive functions such as concentration, information retention, and overall mental clarity.

How to start meditating daily

Incorporating meditation into your daily routine requires dedication and practice, but as you can see, its benefits are well worth it. So if you don’t have a routine in place already, here are four simple tips to help you get started developing your meditation practice:

  1. Set realistic goals: Start with a few minutes each day, and gradually build up time as you become more accustomed to the practice.
  2. Create your ideal meditation space: Designate a comfortable spot for meditation, providing an inviting and distraction-free space for your practice. For more tips, check out this step-by-step guide for creating the perfect meditation space.
  3. Try guided meditation: Engage with a meditation training course or app to guide you through your practice. (Our favorite is the Balance app!).
  4. Connect to your breath: Let your breath be your main focus. And don’t worry, if your mind trails off, gently direct your attention back to your breath.

And if you need any more encouragement, consider this perspective from Balance meditation expert Ofosu Jones-Quartey:

"Starting a meditation routine can be fun, simple, and exciting! Think of it as a way of developing a deeper friendship with yourself. Even if you’ve never meditated, just a few minutes daily can make a huge difference. Self-kindness, patience, and curiosity go a long way in supporting your practice. So give it a shot!"

Improve your brain health with Balance

Want to discover the positive impacts of meditation for yourself? Then look no further than the Balance app. Balance is your personalized meditation program, offering 500+ guided meditations and sleep support to help you reach your wellness goals (and improve your brain health) your way. 

If you’re new to meditation, don’t worry: Balance is perfect for beginners and seasoned meditators alike. With 10-day Plans or 5-minute Singles to enjoy while walking, commuting to work, or simply breathing, its ever-expanding and easy-to-follow library has something for everyone. 

The best part? You can enjoy your first year of Balance without paying a dime—because we believe supporting your brain health should be free of financial stress. 

So what are you waiting for? Download the Balance app on iOS or Android today!

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