The science behind meditation

We’ve heard what it does anecdotally, but how does this practice actually work?
Published January 27, 2020

Meditation is an ancient practice with numerous anecdotally touted benefits – but what does the science say? It’s taken a long time for the science to catch up with what many practitioners of meditation already felt to be true – that meditation is undeniably good for you, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.


“Scientific studies show that meditation lowers stress levels, increases focus and awareness, and enhances positive emotion, learning and memory,” says Joy Rains, speaker and author of Meditation Illuminated: Simple Ways to Manage Your Busy Mind. “Studies of regular meditators actually show physiological changes in the brain linked to these benefits – for example, shrinkage in the amygdala, the part of the brain related to anxiety and stress.”


Rains has personally been practising meditation for more than 30 years. She says the benefits she has experienced include increased awareness, more patience and tolerance, enhanced compassion for others and “the ability to manage my busy mind!”


“Meditation has transformed my life,” she says.


The benefits


From a medical perspective, studies have found meditation may reduce blood pressure and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, help symptoms of depression and anxiety, and aid those who experience insomnia. There have also been studies on meditation as a tool for pain relief, which have produced mixed results. One small study in 2016 determined that mindfulness meditation helps control pain.


Another study suggests that long-term meditation (among a group of people who’d been doing it for between four and 46 years) helps preserve the aging brain by limiting grey matter atrophy. And yet another study found that even just a couple of weeks of mindfulness training improves working memory capacity and decreases mind wandering, helping people stay more focused on the task at hand.


How it works


So what exactly is meditation doing to the brain? Dr. Rebecca Gladding, co-author of the book You Are Not Your Brain, explains the science in a piece for Psychology Today.


“If you were to look at people’s brains before they began a meditation practice, you would likely see strong neural connections within the Me Center [the medial prefrontal cortex, defined as “the part of the brain that constantly references back to you, your perspective and experiences”] and between the Me Center and the bodily sensation/fear centers of the brain,” she writes. “This means that whenever you feel anxious, scared or have a sensation in your body (e.g., a tingling, pain, itching, whatever), you are far more likely to assume that there is a problem (related to you or your safety). This is precisely because the Me Center is processing the bulk of the information. What's more, this over-reliance on the Me Center explains how it is that we often get stuck in repeating loops of thought about our life, mistakes we made, how people feel about us, our bodies (e.g., ‘I’ve had this pain before, does this mean something serious is going on?’) and so on.”


Gladding explains that meditating on a regular basis starts to break down this strong connection between the Me Centre and the brain’s bodily sensation/fear centres – one of these being the amygdala that Rains referred to.


“As this connection withers, you will no longer assume that a bodily sensation or momentary feeling of fear means something is wrong with you or that you are the problem! This explains, in part, why anxiety decreases the more you meditate – it’s because the neural paths that link those upsetting sensations to the Me Center are decreasing,” Gladding writes. “Said another way, your ability to ignore sensations of anxiety is enhanced as you begin to break that connection between the unhelpful parts of the Me Center and the bodily sensation/fear centers.”


Regular meditation also increases the connection between the bodily sensation/fear centres of the brain and the Assessment Centre, otherwise known as the lateral prefrontal cortex, which is the rational, logical part of the brain, Gladding says. This strengthened link helps us approach sensations in our bodies or unsettling experiences from a more rational point of view rather than simply reacting.


In addition, Gladding explains that consistent meditation helps improve our sense of empathy by strengthening other pathways in the brain that help us process information about people we perceive as different from ourselves.


The key to reaping the benefits of these brain connections is to meditate regularly – Gladding recommends daily – to keep those neural pathways strong.


While people have been meditating for about 5,000 years, Rains notes that the practice is now becoming more popular and mainstream – even gaining traction in the workplace, with medical journals reporting the benefits of mindfulness training for employee health and well-being, better performance and resilience in the face of challenges.


If you haven’t tried meditation before, there are countless resources online to help you give it a go, as well as guided meditations offered by Headspace through the WW app, curated just for WW members. And you can also try it on your own – simply sit quietly and focus on your breathing for a few minutes and see what happens. As with anything, it will get easier the more you practise.


Rains sums it up: “Meditation is simple to practise, it’s accessible to anyone who wants to learn to practise, and best of all – it’s free!”