Can meditation really re-wire your brain?

Yes, according to the latest scientific research!

One of the many emails that drop randomly into my inbox mentioned a recent article by Dr. Marsha Lucas, an American psychologist and neuropsychologist describing how meditation can rewire the brain. The article is particularly concerned with how the brain handles relationships but reading between the lines (which is by far the best way to read) it contains a lot of insight into the positive effects of meditation generally. You can read the full article at:

http://karahpino.me/2013/02/10/how-the-neuroscience-of-meditation-rewires-the-brain-for-love-san-francisco-womens-health-examiner-com/

but here is a summary.

“Neuroplasticity” – the brain’s ability to grow new neurons and new connections beyond about age 21 – wasn’t widely accepted until 10-15 years ago. Recent findings show that mindfulness meditation achieves exactly this! Whilst practising, say, playing the piano will develop the parts of the brain which deal with fine control of the hands, so will just thinking about it. ‘Zen’ piano playing in everyday language. In fact visualisation is quite flavour of the month nowadays amongst sports scientists.

meditationi1Mindfulness, by the way, is defined as ‘paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally’. Of course, the Buddha explained more or less all of this about 2,500 years ago but the scientists tend not to mention this as it makes them look less clever.

Mindfulness meditation was also shown to develop: ‘better management of your body’s reactions and regulation of your “fear” response’. From the perspective of the martial artist, what could be more useful? Makes a lot of sense regarding why the Shaolin monks were the ultimate martial artists – they spent a very great deal of time in meditation.

Some of the most recent findings have looked at people who have never practiced meditation, then taught half of those folks how to meditate and had them practice it for eight weeks. When the researchers compared the “never meditated” group to the “meditating for eight weeks” group, the people who had meditated for just eight weeks showed beneficial brain changes.

The studies have shown increased activity (or helpful inhibition) in the following areas, and/or increased gray matter (neurons and their connections with one another – one time it’s good to be “dense” in your brain!):

  • the insula: important in attunement and empathy toward others, as well as self-awareness in general
  • the amygdala: involved in immediate “knee-jerk” fight-or-flight emotional and physical responses, and the implicit memories we have about attachment, related to developing and expressing trust
  • the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC): a big player in the communication between the cortical areas (the upper, sort of “thinking” part of your brain) and the subcortical (your lower, more “raw-feeling” brain parts, like your amygdala). Important in emotional regulation, the ability to recognize one’s emotions, and motivation to communicate with others
  • the left prefrontal cortex: with increased activation (as seen in mindfulness meditators), the left PFC improves positive mood, approach (vs. withdrawal), and other relationship goodies
  • the OMPFC (orbitomedial prefrontal cortex): a key structure in gathering and processing “social information.” If you see a facial expression that looks like someone who is about to blow her top, you can thank your OMPFC for helping you draw on context and previous experiences—allowing you to calculate your reaction based on whether the face belongs to your scary exploding boss or your two-month-old niece.

The third point, regarding connecting the conscious and subconscious brains, is one that I have been talking about a lot recently. If we can consciously tap in to the power of our subconscious minds our brain power is multiplied massively. The conscious mind processes about 9 thoughts a second, the subconscious 3,000. Quite a difference. No wonder that connecting the two is a major step on the path to enlightenment!

My advice:
Meditate daily. Try to practise both sitting meditation and moving meditation – preferably chi kung, shuang yang, tai chi or similar which forces you to be aware of every part of your body at once and thus massively develop your consciousness.

About the author

Author: Master Iain Armstrong
Bio: Iain Armstrong is the 1st disciple student of Grand Master Tan, head of Nam Yang’s UK branch and two times world champion. Iain is famous for his high quality kung fu teaching, his instructional films and magazine articles and for the extremely successful competition and demonstration teams which he coaches. https://chikungretreat.org

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