Meditation Modifies the Brain, but What Are the Consequences?
An increasing number of studies show that meditation will modify the organization and brain structure.
“Meditating,” in the religious / Buddhist sense, is not the same as “meditating” on a problem. Meditation is a practice that aims to dissolve the psychological barrier between the “inside” me and the outside world, although often words like “compassion” and “detachment” are also used to describe the emotions experienced during such a practice.
Meditation is also sometimes likened to sports or fitness practices in Western cultures. But what happens in the brain during meditation sessions (and especially what happens to the neurons over the long term) are only now being looked at from the scientific point of view.
Zoran Josipovic, a neurologist at New York University and also a Buddhist monk, has for the past 10 years focused his work on trying to understand what happens organically in the brains of prominent monks. He’s done this by watching them, during meditation sessions, with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines. Josipovic says:
Meditation research, particularly in the last 10 years or so, has shown to be very promising because it points to an ability of the brain to change and optimize in a way we didn’t know previously was possible.
One of these abilities is the neuronal “reprogramming.” In other words, the ongoing practice of meditation has long-term effects that modify the structure and functioning of the brain. Neurologist, Richard J. Davidson, told the Washington Post that Buddhist monks’ practice of meditation “is having an effect on the brain in the same way golf or tennis practice will enhance performance.”
But how does this transformation work in the brain? On the one hand, we need to understand that our brains have a neuro-plastic function. This is what allows us to learn something and improve the brain’s function. The idea is that, the more we do something, the better our brains are able to learn it. This can also be a double-edged sword, because if we’re exposed to people, feelings or negative situations for long periods, our brains change their structures to respond to that hostility, and eventually they’re fixed in those emotions.
What happens to the monks who practice meditation? Davidson wrote in IEEE Signal Processing Magazine in 2008:
The findings from studies in this unusual sample… suggest that, over the course of meditating for tens of thousands of hours, the long-term practitioners had actually altered the structure and function of their brains.
Neuroplasticity is improved, and this allows the brain to reorganize and to be able to create new neural connections. This implies that they have better resilience at learning from negative experiences, and they teach the brain to do so with more compassion.
“There are many neuroscientists out there looking at mindfulness, but not a lot who are studying compassion,” Knutson told the San Francisco Chronicle. “The Buddhist view of the world can provide some potentially interesting information about the subcortical reward circuits involved in motivation.”
And while science advances, step by step, in explaining how our brains work, a monk meditates somewhere for the release of those who do not know and will never know – you and me among them.
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