Neuroscience and meditation: Take as good care of your brain as you do your body.

Photo (detail) by Gianna Leo Falcon.

Josh Korda, author of “Good, Bad, or Blank?”, found in our current magazine, asks: why would someone who exercises choose not to meditate? Good question!

It’s interesting that so many people I know are given to regular, if not daily, exercise routines, often putting in a couple of hours at the gym without a blink. If asked why, they invariably mention the numerous benefits of maintaining strength, flexibility and cardio performance, for “It’s the only body I’ve got.” Some explain that they love exercise in general, however many do it principally for the long-term benefits, understanding the results are worth the time and effort it requires.

Yet so many admit they fail to practice meditation on a daily basis, even in the briefest of 5 – 10 minute intervals, explaining that “I have too much going on,” or “I can’t sit still.” Some try to claim that their morning coffee and news reading, or their jogging is “meditative,” which would be like claiming “my television watching is how I exercise.” This is hardly a wise choice: increasing evidence via research shows that spending a life without training the mind is as detrimental to brain function as a life without exercise is to the body.

While activities that quiet the mind, such as hiking, swimming, painting, etc, are certainly soothing, they do not provide the same benefits as meditation, and the distinction is essential, as meditations based on focused attention (otherwise known as sustained concentration, wherein one steadily monitors the breath and body sensations without additional movement or thought) and open monitoring  (vipasanna meditation, which develops a non-reactive awareness that can attend to experience without identifying with the content) have clinically documented, significant long-term neural benefits that soothing activities do not.

Recent insights into the importance of meditation derive from the advent of new scanning technologies, notably fMRI. What they document is that our previous understanding of the brain, which was once considered to be a somewhat set structure with hard-wired functions, was substantially incorrect. We now understand the brain to be continually flexible, with significant neuroplastic capabilities. It is, in other words, a uniquely malleable and self-editing organ, changing structure and function depending on the nature of our experience, how we focus attention, interpret the world and act. For example, a 1995 Harvard study documented that people who simply imagined playing the piano, without actually touching one, still rewired the somatosensory lobe in the same way that an actual piano players rewired their brains.

Lets review some of the significant developments over the last 15 years:

  • Long-term meditators increase the neural capacity of the hippocampus, cingulate, temporal gyrus, and insula, which are associated with the performance of memory, emotion-regulation, empathy, impulse control. In conjunction with exercise, meditation leads to reduction in vulnerability to alzheimer’s disease.
  • Meditators, in as short a period of a few months, show continual and even activation in the cingulate, which focuses attention for sustained periods and, in conjunction with mirror neurons, allows for empathetic connection with others. Meditators invariably demonstrate superior ability to perform tasks that require uninterrupted attention.
  • There is also the benefit of increased levels of GABA, which lowers anxiety and improves one’s disposition. In as little as two months, the left prefrontal region of the brain, associated with optimism, shows increased activity, even in the case of those who’ve previously suffered significant episodes of depression.

And of course there are the many health advantages to meditation which are well documented, such as the reduction of cortisol and stress, which in turn reduces high blood pressure, heart and digestive ailments, along with increasing the production of white blood cells. In short, meditation improves your brain function as significantly as exercise improves your health.

Given all the above, why would someone exercise without meditating? It’s essentially choosing to take care of one’s body without bothering to take care of one’s brain. We do depend on both.

If you’re looking to develop a short daily meditation routine, its easiest to avail oneself of all the free, online guided meditations available. There are numerous meditations found on tarabrach.com, dharmaseed.org, audiodharma.org, and of course dharmapunxnyc.podbean.com and ShambhalaSun.com.

Originally published on the DharmaPunxNYC blog. Please note the citations listed there for some of the hundreds of peer-reviewed, clinical papers that document the importance role meditation plays in upgrading brain structure and performance.

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