Meditate Your Way to a Powerful Mind

The Monks have known it all along. Meditation is the secret behind the Buddha's smile and Buddhist monks can teach us quite a lot about the brain and its magnitude. Research that measured activity in monks' brains while they're meditating has scientifically illustrated what we've known anecdotally: meditating is not just good for the soul; it's good for the brain, too. Broadly, meditation helps you develop stronger attention skills, alter your visual perception, expand your capacity for happiness and empathy, and, overall, live a happier, more tranquil life.

Using MRIs (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), researchers have observed monks' brains during meditation, allowing them to actually see how the brain responds physiologically. The changes are significant and are due to a phenomenon called neuroplasticity, which describes the brain's ability to use new experiences or environments to create structural changes, such as growing new neural connections or creating new neurons.

The mental training of meditation is really no different from the processing of acquiring other skills through repeated, continual practice—such as mastering a sport or musical instrument. Individuals who suffer from brain injuries can often find alternative ways to compensate for damage to a specific area of their brain. This is neuroplasticity at work.

Humans have two types of neural attention networks: internal (intrinsic), and external (extrinsic). Remarkably, monks are able to focus on a task, which involves the extrinsic network, while simultaneously reflecting on matters that involve the self and emotions, the intrinsic network.

Through these imaging studies, researchers learned that monks can keep the two networks active at the same time—something most of us cannot do. Learning to do this, can change the brain.

How You Can Use the Research

Preliminary studies suggest that meditation training can help individuals develop new, positive habits and overcome difficult challenges, such as addictions. For example, early findings in one small study found that two weeks of mindful meditation training helped smokers reduce the frequency of smoking and cravings for cigarettes. Another small study found meditation helped reduce high levels of anxiety.

Most of us do not invest years of practice in meditation, so we don't reap the same emotional and physical results that monks do. However, any amount of meditation can be beneficial if you stick with it and practice it vigilantly.

Amit Sood, MD, of the Mayo Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program and a researcher in the anxiety study, says, "People can learn meditation quickly, but then they forget. A change in habit requires a lot of effort. You have to be dedicated and carve out the time—even during the busiest days. What often happens is that over time, the will power becomes depleted."

Rafael Pajaro, MD, reviewed this article.



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