How Meditation Improves Cognitive Functioning

Meditation has become a cornerstone of self-care routines everywhere, and many people have gone from using it as a way of dealing with everyday stress to optimizing themselves for productivity and success. Here we’ll look at the ways meditation creates structural changes in the brain to promote better functioning and more productive humans.


Within the field of neuroscience, there are many studied behaviors that can produce observable changes in the brain over time. These include the learning of mathematics, music, navigation, and certain strategic board games. When these activities are introduced, the brain changes in predictable ways, often permanently. Similarly, there’s sufficient evidence that meditation can produce long-term changes in the structure of the brain.


Effects of Meditation on Attention

The thickness of one’s cortex (outer layer of the brain) is seen as one measure of human intellectual ability. A 2005 study in Neuroreport looked at 20 long-time meditators and found that they exhibited greater cortical thickness in the middle and upper frontal cortex, which is associated with greater attention processing.


Correlational studies have also shown that long-time meditators have increased gyrification (cortical folding) in the insula. To give some perspective, folding of the cortex is what gives the brain its characteristic “wrinkled look”. But this evolution isn’t just for looks. The folding of the outer layers of the brain creates a large surface area in a smaller space. The greater the degree of folding, the more surface area and the greater the level of sophistication in that part of the brain.


Gyrification produces the brain's "wrinkled" appearance

Meditators have increased gyrification, and therefore surface area in the insula, an area of the brain responsible for attention and regulation of the default mode network. When we have greater control over the default mode network, we are able to maintain focus and achieve flow more easily.


It’s also worth noting that the brain is limited in its allocation of attentional resources. As such, when two stimuli are presented in quick succession, the second often goes unnoticed. This phenomenon is known as “attentional blink”. A 2007 study in PLOS Biology showed that 3 months of Vipassana meditation training resulted in a smaller attentional blink, meaning that the second stimulus didn’t go unnoticed as often. This is likely because less brain resources were needed to maintain attention. This is a particularly exciting finding because it means that meditation makes our brains more energy-efficient. This is significant because the brain currently occupies about 2% of the total body mass, but accounts for 20% of our total energy usage.


Meditation and Emotional Regulation

MRI studies have shown that long-time meditators have larger gray matter density in the orbitofrontal cortex. This area of the brain is involved in emotional processing and regulation.


The insula plays an interesting role here as well. The right anterior insula plays an important role in emotional experience and interoception (perception of internal stimuli such as hunger). Interoception scores are positively correlated with better emotional processing and regulation, meaning that the better you’re able to pay attention to what’s going on inside of you, the better you can control and understand your emotions. And indeed, long-time meditators have increased gyrification in this area of the insula.


Memory and Learning

Chronic stress causes neurons in the hippocampus to atrophy (waste away). Since the hippocampus is heavily involved in learning and memory, stress can make learning significantly harder. The stress-reducing effects of a regular meditation practice preserve neurons in the hippocampus and maintain the plasticity (changeability) of the structure over time.


A study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease looked at how meditation could improve memory in a small group of memory-impaired older adults. The study revealed that as little as 12 minutes a day could reverse early stage memory loss. It seems that this type of intervention is only effective up to a certain point, so it's best to use meditation before any memory problems occur.


It’s important to understand that this research isn’t conclusive and that the distinct areas of the brain don’t operate in a vacuum. They are very much dependent on one another in orchestrating peak experiences and optimal cognition. But it seems that meditation can benefit mental and emotional functioning in several fascinating ways. It is my hope that we can use this information to better ourselves, and our communities in the process.


References


Davidson, Richard J, and Antoine Lutz. “Buddha's Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation.” IEEE signal processing magazine vol. 25,1 (2008): 176-174. doi:10.1109/msp.2008.4431873


Doheny, Kathleen. “Can Meditation Reverse Memory Loss?” WebMD, WebMD, 3 Mar. 2010, www.webmd.com/alzheimers/news/20100303/can-meditation-reverse-memory-loss#1.


Kang, Do-Hyung et al. “The effect of meditation on brain structure: cortical thickness mapping and diffusion tensor imaging.” Social cognitive and affective neuroscience vol. 8,1 (2013): 27-33. doi:10.1093/scan/nss056


Lazar, Sara W et al. “Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness.” Neuroreport vol. 16,17 (2005): 1893-7. doi:10.1097/01.wnr.0000186598.66243.19


Luders, E., Kurth, F., Mayer, E., Toga, A., Narr, K., & Gaser, C. (2012). The unique brain anatomy of meditation practitioners: Alterations in cortical gyrification. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6, 34-34. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2012.00034


Uddin, Lucina Q et al. “Structure and Function of the Human Insula.” Journal of clinical neurophysiology : official publication of the American Electroencephalographic Society vol. 34,4 (2017): 300-306. doi:10.1097/WNP.0000000000000377



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