Mindfulness and meditation are, as they say, "trending" these days, but with pretty good reason. You've probably heard a friend talking about the extensive benefits of her daily mediation practice, and how her stress levels are basically nonexistent nowadays, and TBH, you can't deny being low-key intrigued. After all, the ways in which meditation changes your brain are no joke, and if you've never really given it much thought before, it's high time you gave the practice a chance.
In case you haven't already heard, meditation can do some pretty incredible things for you overall. It can help relieve stress, quiet your mind, improve your focus, and even boost your self-esteem. But it is a bit strange when you think about it: How does simply sitting in silence with your eyes closed and observing your thoughts for a few minutes each day have such an intense and positive impact on your brain and, as a result, your quality of life?
To say the least, guys, the evidence for how meditation changes your brain is overwhelming. For example, in 2015, The Washington Post published a report that highlighted research about the effects of meditation carried out by a woman named Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Going into her research, Lazar had heard all the personal anecdotes about how amazing meditation was, and she'd even started experiencing some of those benefits herself while doing yoga after a running injury. Even so, she told The Washington Post that she suspected these were just placebo responses — aka all in people's heads.
To get to the bottom of just how powerful meditation and mindfulness can truly be, Lazar decided to conduct a study to see how these practices actually change your brain.
In her study, Lazar had a group of people who'd never meditated before participate in "an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program," according to The Washington Post.
To understand how those eight weeks of mindfulness affected the participants, Lazar conducted brain scans on each of them. Now, the results are a bit tricky to unpack, but here's the gist of it: The research revealed a thickening in a few major areas of the brain, including the posterior cingulate (aka the area associated with self-relevance and mind-wandering tendencies), the left hippocampus (which is involved with memories, cognition, learning, and emotions), and the temporo parietal junction (the area that assists with empathy and compassion). Based on those results, Lazar concluded that including mindfulness and meditation in a daily routine can significantly increase your ability to cope with uncomfortable and difficult situations, and thus is extremely therapeutic for many areas of the brain.
Lazar definitely isn't the only one who's scientifically demonstrated the significant positive changes that meditation can bestow upon your brain. A 2016 study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry showed that people who were assigned to meditate for as little as three days ultimately experienced improvements in mental functioning, as well. Brain scans of the participants showed decreased inflammation compared to a control group that didn't meditate, as well as an improved ability to stay calm in difficult, stressful situations. But you know what's even more mind-blowing?
Four months later, even though many of the participants in the experiment were no longer meditating on their own, the inflammation levels in their brain were still lower than the group that didn't meditate at all.
And if all of this amazing information about daily mindfulness and #braingains isn't enough for you, consider the fact that meditation actually helps reduce the rate at which your brain tissue decays as you age — yes, seriously.
It's inevitable that, as you age, your brain naturally decreases in volume and literally begins to shrink. This is why you tend to be more forgetful as you get older, and unfortunately, this is what can also lead to more severe cognitive conditions like Alzheimer's disease.
But according to research from 2015 published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, adding just a few minutes of meditative stillness and deep breathing into your daily routine has the ability to protect your brain from these cognitive risks associated with aging and legitimately slow down the rate at which your brain is "shrinking," so to speak.
With all the incredible brain-altering benefits that meditation brings to the table, why wouldn't you want to give the ancient practice a shot?
I know, I know, you're probably thinking you just don't have time for it in your busy schedule. But seriously, if that's the only thing standing your way, it's important to realize that, in order to meditate, you really don't have to be in an elaborately ~zen~ setting or sit in silence for hours at a time. Try starting your practice by simply sitting up in your bed for five minutes each morning before you get going for the day, and allowing stillness to envelop you as you breathe deeply.
For all you know, those few minutes might just become the best part of your whole day. Oh, and your brain will definitely thank you for it.