Your Brain on Meditation

Part 1

Your Brain on Meditation
Meditation: The New Age Wonderdrug

Introduction

To say that Meditation is a well-known concept in western society nowadays would be a severe understatement. From weekly yoga classes to about a thousand meditation apps scattered across app stores worldwide, the gig is up: everyone knows about the concept of meditation and its myriad of benefits.

Therefore, in this article, our aim is to explore whether you should care in the first place. Does meditation live up to the hype, or is it just another cultural trend that is being capitalised on by everybody and their grandmother? Let’s find out.

Flow: The State of Optimal Performance

As detailed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”, Flow is a state of all-encompassing concentration in which an individual is so fully absorbed in the task that they perform at optimal levels.

This sensation has been experienced by most people, albeit briefly, scattered throughout their lives. It is often experienced by athletes trying to win a competition, a musician trying to nail a challenging piece, or even someone working on an important work project with only hours to spare before the deadline.

People with a high calibre of understanding and skill in certain fields, such as chess masters, musicians, athletes or surgeons will experience flow often when sufficiently challenged. All the chatter in the brain ceases to exist in this state, including one’s sense of self (ego). Csikzentmihalyi states that this is the happiest states for human beings to be in. Usually, the requirements for flow consist of being:

  • Sufficiently challenged.
  • Actively focused on a task for a long stretch of time.

It might not come as a massive shock to many of you that the brain doesn’t usually operate in this way. In fact, when we are not focused, our ‘Default Mode Network’ (DMN) is at play. The areas of the brain that control this network are responsible for self-referencing, understanding other people’s emotions, remembering the past and imagining the future, as well as general mind wandering.

In short: the DMN is responsible for a lot of our misery, as we ruminate about something that we said (rumination), spend time imagining things that haven’t even happened yet (anxiety), and generally wander from thought to thought. It is, in essence, the opposite of what mindfulness awareness practices aim to achieve: an increased tolerance, and ability in being “present”.

“What does this any of this have to do with meditation?” I hear you ask, as your patience grows thinner by the second. Simply put: Meditation is incredible at lowering the activity of the DMN and reducing the chatter that comes with it. Meditation practices are likely to encourage flow states, reduce anxiety, general mind wandering and help us sit in the experience of life without letting it control us. In other words, we become more patient.

Dr Judson Brewer and his colleagues from Yale University studied meditation practitioners of different styles, and found their DMN was less active: both during meditation, but also when they weren’t meditating. In other words - they literally changed the default mode of operation of their brain to be less distracted.

To summarise: regular bouts of meditation increase the frequency of flow state occurrences, as well as how easy it is to enter flow. Since this is literally the happiest state that human beings can be in… well, I’m sure you can put two and two together.

Meditation and the Brain

What I find fascinating about meditation is how it has proven time and time again in numerous studies to be extremely beneficial for both the body and mind. Science has focused its efforts primarily on studying focused-attention, i.e. mindful meditation.


The aim of this meditation practice is to focus your mind on one central point, such as your breathing, and then bring back your focus to this central point whenever you get distracted. Using modern technology like fMRI scans, scientists have found out that our brains stop processing information as actively as they normally would.

One study found that after even one 20 minute meditation session, with no prior experience, participants showed a decrease in beta brain waves, which are responsible for processing information. There are many regions of the brain that are affected by a mindful meditation practice. For example:

  • The frontal lobe, which is responsible for reasoning, planning, emotions and self-conscious awareness, goes offline during meditation.
  • The parietal lobe, which is responsible for sensory processing, spatial awareness and time-space orientation slows down.
  • The thalamus, i.e. the gatekeeper of the senses. This area focuses your attention by fuelling sensory data deeper into the brain, and stopping other signals in their tracks. Interestingly, meditation stops the flow of information here down to only a trickle.

Meditation also dials back the arousal signal for the RAS (Reticular Activating System). This system operates our “fight-or-flight” mechanism in essence. Meditation has numerous health benefits that affect us both physiologically, psychologically and mentally.

This article was intended to briefly discuss the importance of meditation, the concept of flow and how it affects the brain. In Part II of this piece I will be aiming to explore the physiological, psychological and mental health benefits that meditation provides.

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Shahin Negahban
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