Brief Neuroscience of Meditation
You know how you get told something over and over again until you finally listen? That’s how I was with meditation. I think I was told I should meditate at least 10 times from 10 different people before I listened! Neuroscience
I had dabbled in meditation when I was in graduate school and stressed out. I found it a great way to calm my brain for tests. I would visualize myself in the future receiving my diploma knowing that if that was the case, I had passed all of my tests.
I meditated again when I was sick and needed rest to heal. Under the direction of a practitioner, I practiced different styles of meditation. After that, I had a small practice by was not very consistent. Finally, after the 10th person (or maybe even more!) told me I needed to meditate regularly, I listened.
I started with the app Headspace. This was a great way to get me started with a daily practice. I knew from Occupational Therapy school that in order to increase my chances of creating a new habit, I needed to do it the same time as a current habit. The habit I chose was brushing my teeth. Each night after I would brush my teeth I would sit down to meditate for a few minutes. Shortly, I noticed I was more calm and observant and I was hooked.
Since I am a science geek I wanted to know what was happening with my brain in meditation. I started to study the neuroscience of meditation, and luckily, so was research. There were new books and articles backing the profound results in the brain from a simple mindfulness meditation practice. I read a book called “Buddha’s Brain” by Rick Hanson and that only reinforced my daily practice. This past month I gave a presentation on the neuroscience behind meditation followed by a simple meditation practice. From that, I wanted to share with you two of the biggest takeaways from my class.
First, we are creatures of habit and we are constantly looking for threats. Our brains are wired this way since we used to have to run from prey and work really hard to survive. Our brains are wired to remember things that are “bad” so that we stay safe. As Rick says our memories are like “Velcro for the bad and Teflon for the good” meaning brains are not wired to remember much of the good, we remember the bad.
In today’s world, we are faced with threats all of the time. In addition to our hectic and busy lives, social media and news bombard us non-stop. It seems we can never get a break from bad news; our brains are taking this in and it is affecting us. When we hear or see bad news and/or do not get a like on Facebook or Instagram, our brains release chemicals. These chemicals, whether we are conscious of it or not, start the fight or flight system and more chemicals are released. Before we know it we are anxious and stressed, and we have no idea why.
This constant release of chemicals starts to reinforce our brain with a habit or pattern. This leads to the second big take away from Donald Hebb: “Neurons the fire together, wire together”. Each time we encounter something bad or scary and we give a response in the same way (stressor, fight or flight system, chemicals released, anxious response) it reinforces it in our brains. The neurons in our brain are efficient and once you start to respond the same way each time they start to fire quicker. Therefore, that response pattern happens without you even thinking about more efficiently each time. When you hear or see bad news, without even thinking about it you are responding with anxiety, depression, and/ or fatigue because your brain is wired by habit to respond this way. The levels of stress wear out our bodies, which can lead to problems with our heart, digestion and gut, reproductive system, and things such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and panic attacks.
In response to breaking our unconscious habits, the best thing we can do is sit in a quiet practice daily. This gives us time in silence where we are not faced with threats. Sitting daily decreases the release of chemicals in our bodies. We begin by noticing our breath and over time we begin to notice our responses. We become observant of how we are responding to stress and therefore respond to stress differently. We learn to re-wire our brain and break those habit patterns.
Re-wiring the brain takes practice and time but it does happen, as I have experienced myself. I have watched others who meditate daily go through the same process too. I have read about it in books and know neurologically the brain is actually changing. I challenge you to sit every day for 10 minutes for 2 weeks and then see what you notice. Reach out to me if you need help! If this information is interesting to you, sign up for my newsletter, and when I teach this class again, you will be informed.