How Meditation Changes the Brain By Liam McClintock Last updated: 9 Mar 2020

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A group of neuroscientists wanted to figure out whether years of meditation had changed the brain of an expert monk.

Led by Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, they connected 256 electrodes to a Tibetan monk named Matthew Ricard, who had given up a career in science and spent decades meditating in the Himalayas.

Dr. Davidson and his colleagues were astonished by Ricard’s brain signature, having never seen anything like it before.

The activity in his left prefrontal cortex (responsible for subduing negative emotions) and abnormal gamma wave levels (suggesting signs of bliss) led them to dub him “the happiest man in the world.”

But this wasn’t an isolated finding. As it turns out experienced meditators across the board show fascinating improvements to their brains.

And even novices who learn meditation, practicing over the course of a few weeks, begin to see changes take place.

Key Changes in the Brains of Meditators

Research has shown that there are several ways that meditation can change the brain’s structure and function:

Enlarges the prefrontal cortex.

This area of the brain is responsible for rational decision-making. Studies have shown that meditation increases grey matter (brain cells) in this region.

Shrinks the amygdala.

The amygdala is a key brain structure known as the emotional or fear center of the brain. Smaller amygdalae found in more mindful people are associated with greater emotional control.

Thickens the hippocampus.

This hippocampus is key for learning and memory. Just a few weeks of mindfulness meditation practice increased the size of this brain region.

Increases overall grey matter.

Grey matter, brain cell bodies important for processing power and linked to intelligence, seem to increase with meditation training.

Enhances high-amplitude gamma brainwave activity.

High-frequency gamma waves correlate with states of heightened awareness and bliss. Long-term meditators have been shown to have more gamma wave activity both before and during meditation.

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