Over the past few years we have seen meditation become increasingly popular. It has become recognised by healthcare as being a practice that can improve a person’s mental health. But, how exactly does it do this?

To understand why meditation is good for our mental health we must do a whistle stop tour of how meditation effects the brain.

The science

You may have heard of the terms grey matter and white matter, which makes up the brain. Simply put, grey matter is the cell bodies and white matter is filaments or the wires that extend from these bodies. Studies show that meditation can increase the grey matter in our brains; this means that there is an increasing density of cell bodies in certain areas of the brain.

The particularly interesting aspect, is which areas of the brain, meditation practice seems to affect. Here is a description of the top 3 areas affected:

  • Assessment centre of the brain = lateral prefrontal cortex:  This part of the brain helps us perceive things more logically, rationally and from a balanced perspective. It can override our ‘Me centre’ of the brain which takes things personally.
  • Me Centre = Medial prefrontal cortex: within this area there are two sections. One section which refers all experiences back to you e.g. your perspective and experiences; and, another section which is involved in feeling empathy.
  • Fear Centre = Amygdala: linked with our fight or flight response. This primitive part of the brain can create the physical feelings of anxiety.

The effect

Meditation has been shown to increase connections between the assessment centre and fear centres, increasing our ability to critically assess a situation when we experience threat or pain. It also increases grey matter in the areas of the brain linked with empathy, allowing us to be better able to see things from another perspective and demonstrate more compassion.

On top of these amazing increases in grey matter, meditation has also been shown to decrease the connection between the Me Centre and Fear Centre.

As a result we are less likely to always view physical sensations of stress/anxiety through the lens that the problem is with us. This is now where the critical thinking kicks in, allowing us to assess if we are the problem or if it is external. This gives us the ability to assess rather than just succumb to sensations of anxiety that arise in the body. This is why meditation has shown to reduce levels of anxiety. In order to experience these incredible benefits we need to treat the brain like muscles in a gym. By having a regular practice we strengthen these new neural pathways. Although it is possible for the brain to revert back to its old ways, even maintaining a short regular practice everyday can keep these new neural pathways nice and strong.