How Meditation Can Alter Our Brains And Improve Our Health

Photo: HaPe_Gera - https://www.flickr.com/photos/hape_gera/ - Flickr Creative Commons

 
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by Luke Sumpter

on December 2, 2014

Dwelling at the origins of all of our thought patterns, conscious and sub-conscious behaviors, and all of our emotions are brainwaves. Brainwaves are the electrical impulses between neurons used for communication within the brain. They can be detected and measured using sensors placed upon the scalp. Brainwave states change depending upon what activities we partake in and what type of environments we are surrounded by. Meditation offers us an effective and simple healing modality that allows us to take our body-mind health into our own hands. It allows us to consciously alter our brainwave states to improve our wellbeing. It can greatly reduce our stress levels –– and the diseases that accompany them too.

In a time of high-stress work weeks, with veterans returning from wars and our planet in crisis, stress-levels and mental illness have never been so abundant; Meditation can offer an empowering and holistic way to deal with the day-to-day challenges of the 21st century. A number of experts within the field of meditation claim that it could replace the need for many pharmaceutical drugs amongst people suffering from depression and anxiety, without the negative side effects that come with those drugs.

Meditation is almost as paramount as sleep in our society in terms of its healing and rejuvenating qualities. It’s like a workout for the mind. If somebody wanted to gain physical strength, they would, for example, go to the gym and practice dead lifts. Similarly, each mediation session is an opportunity to train the brain to focus and become a witness to thoughts, rather than their owner. It’s all in the practice.

How Brainwaves Function

There are four known brainwave states, which are:

Beta  [12 – 38hz] – Our normal, everyday, waking state of consciousness is based within this frequency range. Repetitive, cognitive, external tasks that require decision making, problem solving and fast-acting alert states of mind trigger beta waves. Many of the jobs required for Western society to run smoothly require its workers to be engaged in this band of consciousness on a daily basis.

Alpha [8 – 15hz] Alpha states are achieved during periods of relaxation, quiet and slow thought processes, light meditative states, visualization, and creative flows. Studies that monitored the EEG levels of advanced and experienced meditators displayed a vast increase in alpha brainwave activity. Lessened sensitivity to pain, and decreased anxiety and stress, have also been linked to alpha states.

Theta [3 – 8hz] – Most commonly, theta waves occur during sleep, however they are also associated with deep meditation, dreaming, out of body experiences and shamanic journeying. This is the conscious state we find ourselves in as we drift in and out of the sleeping state. Whilst in the theta state, we are withdrawn from the external world and into the internal world. During this dreaming/dream-like state we have access to deep intuitions. It brings up our fears, histories and information that are usually beyond our conscious awareness.

In a pilot study of advanced ‘Sahaja Yoga’ mediators, each member of the group wore a head cap designed to detect electrical signals within the brain. Two-dimensional maps were then created using the collected data. The participants were asked to sit quietly momentarily and to begin to actively meditate when they neared a mental state of thoughtless awareness. All of the mediators within the study displayed widespread changes in brainwave activity. Initially, alpha waves became dominant as the meditation sessions progressed. Deeper into the sessions, theta waves were produced and mapped. Interestingly, each participant claimed to have entered into a state of complete mental silence and ‘oneness’ with the present moment around the time that the theta waves were detected.

Delta – Delta brainwaves result in deep sleep and complete unconsciousness. During this state the body is resting, healing itself and regenerating.

NB: Also worth noting are binaural beats, a modern and promising technology that allows the user to manipulate their brainwave patterns using sound. Here’s an explanation of binaural beats from the website for the nonprofit educational Monroe Institute:

“The sensation of auditory binaural beats occurs when two coherent sounds of nearly similar frequencies are presented one to each ear with stereo headphones or speakers. The brain integrates the two signals, producing a sensation of a third sound called the binaural beat.

For example, if a frequency of 100 Hz is played in one ear and 107 Hz is played in the other ear, a binaural beat of 7 Hz is created by the brain.

Brain waves match or ‘follow’ the binaural beat. If the binaural beat is 7 Hz, an increase in brain waves of 7 Hz occurs.”

Binaural beats can be combined with meditation for optimal results.

Meditation Benefits Emotional Processing And Reconstructs Brain Physiology

Several scientific studies have shown that meditation is effective because of the changes it creates in certain areas of the brain –– particularly in a set of neurons called the amygdalae. The amygdalae are ancient parts of the brain in evolutionary terms. The two almond-shaped clusters of neurons lie deep within the brain’s center, and are responsible for our body’s fight-or-flight response system. They process emotional stimuli, which triggers amygdala neurons to fire off signals.

A 2012 study showed that during meditation, amygdala activity decreased among people in the study group. The positive effects of meditation appeared to carry over into study subjects’ everyday lives, as follow ups showed the same decreased amygdala response even when participants were not actively in a meditative state.

The amygdalae helped keep us alive in our archaic, hunter-gatherer pasts, when we faced regular lethal encounters in the forms of natural predators. Back then, the huge stress response generated from the amygdalae was a life-saving tool. However, in modern Western society, such immediate threats to our existence are very rare. Unfortunately this does not stop the amygdalae from playing their once-crucial role. Intense amygdala responses may fire up when we are faced with work deadlines, relationship issues, financial difficulties etc., thus exposing our bodies to unnatural amounts of stress over long periods of time.

Research has show that meditation can do more than mitigate the over-excited amygdalae. A team of neurobiological researchers at UCLA discovered that meditation causes a permanent reconstruction of the brain. Areas of the brain such as the right orbitofrontal cortex, right hippocampus and thalamus all showed a marked increase in grey matter volume, compared to non-mediators, resulting in cultivation of positive emotions, emotional stability, mindful behavior and an increased capacity for focused attention. Neuroscientists at the University of Oregon found that brain connectivity could be altered in participants with no prior meditation experience, after a total practice of just 11 collective hours of meditation via 30-minute sessions over one month.

Stress-Caused Illness And Meditation

General Adaptation Syndrome’ is a term used to describe the psychochemical changes that occur within the body when it’s exposed to periods of stress, both short-term and long-term. The effect that stress has upon our physical and mental health is absolutely profound and often underestimated or ignored by the Western medicinal model. There are strong, proven links between stress and illness. In the medical world, physical dysfunctions within the body that originate from mental or emotional stress are recognized as “psychosomatic illness.”

Any major distortion or disruption to our mental or emotional health can result in increased levels of stress. Disorders such as OCD, PTSD, anxiety or high-stress lifestyles can therefore contribute to the likeliness of the onset of a psychosomatic disorder and negative changes in the sufferer’s physiology. Some of the most common psychosomatic disorders manifest in the forms of hypertension, tension headaches, sexual dysfunction, body dysmorphic disorder, hypochondriasis and many other such conditions. Some medical professionals –– such as Dr. Gabor Mate –– theorize that cancer can also be traced back to stress and psychological trauma.

The evidence is clear that meditation is a prime stress reduction technique. It also points to a correlation between the positive effects of meditation and the prevention, treatment and cure of many psychosomatic diseases that riddle our society.

5-Minute Meditation Exercise:

  • Find a place with little to no noise or distraction. Position yourself in a way that is most comfortable for you, whether cross-legged, on a chair or even lying down (a position that keeps your spine upright, maintaining its natural S-curve, is ideal).
  • Begin to focus upon the behavior of your breath as it enters and exits the body. Breathe full, deep breaths so the abdomen expands upon breathing in.
  • Watch your thoughts come and go, it’s okay to get lost in them once in a while; try not to resist them, yet try not to embrace them. Just observe them.
  • When you become conscious that you have become lost in a thought, return your focus and attention to the tides of your breath. Mentally or vocally repeating or word or phrase, known as a mantra, is also a useful technique to stop the mind wandering astray.
  • Visualization techniques such as seeing each thought as a ripple of the surface of a body of water that slowly fades away are useful to help thoughts dissipate without resisting them. Try to also become very aware of your immediate surroundings: every sound, bodily sensation, smell etc. This will aid in plunging conscious awareness into the present moment.

Luke Sumpter is a 21-year-old holistic health enthusiast and writer from the United Kingdom. Several prime events in his life have sparked a conscious awakening from which a wide perspective of the world and the evolutionary challenges of existence have been formed. He hopes to spread messages of body-mind healing and lucid living via his work. You can find his videos and posts at his page The Art of Wellness.