7 Ways Your Brain Changes After You Start Meditating

by JR Thorpe
Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Are you in the habit of breathing deeply and clearing your mind for five or ten minutes a day? It turns out that meditation and mindfulness training are more than just stress relievers: They also, according to scientific research, physically change the structure of the brain and the ways in which it reacts to stimuli. It's a fascinating area of study, because often we think of the brain as fixed; once we get to adulthood, the common conception is that behaviors and ideas may develop, but brains stay, well, largely the same. Meditation studies are revealing that's not the case, and that doing a bit of strategic relaxation and mental clearing-out can physically shift your neurobiology.

Meditation may date back as far as 5,000 BC, and has been found in many cultures and religious practices. The most popular form at the moment is mindfulness meditation, in which practitioners are encouraged to be "in the moment" and become acutely aware of their breath, their bodies, and the sensations they experience. Meditation doesn't have to involve you sitting cross legged with your eyes closed; there are a number of different ways to practice, all with benefits to your overall wellbeing. But on top of that, here are seven ways it can literally change your brain.


It Can Change How You Pay Attention — And Still Works Years Later

A new study published this week in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement has found that not only does meditation change the brain, it does so long-term. This matters, because a lot of things can shift the way brains work (anti-depressants, for instance), but their impact is strictly time-limited. Meditation, this new study found, maintains its affects for years and doesn't seem diminishing returns. If you practice meditation regularly, your attentive mechanisms will be more effective and you'll have a better memory, this study claims.

The study followed meditators over seven years after an initial meditation retreat, including a bunch of 40 people who practiced it every day. People were far better at concentrating immediately after the retreat, and still felt those effects years later, particularly if they still meditated very regularly and were a bit older. It's not just a flash in the pan.


It Can Impact Anxiety

Every human feels anxious on occasion; it's part of our evolved response to danger and potential threat. But if you have chronic anxiety, a 2017 study recommends 10 minutes of meditation a day — because it shifts brain structure in such a way that anxiety becomes less intense.

Why did it work? Because, the researchers explained, concentration is an anxiety-buster. Meditation, they said, "prevented the increase of mind wandering over time," and helped people "switch attentional focus from the internal to the present-moment external world." We know, thanks to research in 2018, that there are specific areas of the brain that "light up" when anxiety appears, so it's possible that meditation is in some way calming or distracting the neural impulses that make those sections go into overdrive.


It Can Speed Up How Fast You Process Information

That "humans only use 10 percent of their brain" tale is a myth. But it's true that our processing speeds and capabilities can change depending on what we're doing. And a 2014 study from Norway found that during meditation, the brain's processing speed actually increases, rather than decreasing.

This may seem counter-intuitive; clearing the mind should, logically, cause things to slow down, right? Not so much, according to the scientists behind the study. They compared brain activity in 14 people during two tasks: meditation and thinking freely. During meditation, the part of the brain where we process thoughts and feelings was more active than when people were just staring into the distance. This may make meditating people more able to sort through their own feelings even if they're not consciously doing more work.


It Can Reduce Pain Signals

The link between meditation and pain relief is a long and interesting one; certain kinds of meditation are believed to give resistance to extreme temperatures, and adventurer Wim Hof has made a career out of his ability to withstand freezing cold. But in 2017 a more direct possibility was posed. Just 10 minutes of meditation, English scientists suggested, may increase pain tolerance.

The people used in the study were young and healthy, so this isn't necessarily a prescription for people with chronic pain. But the subjects who did meditation before being exposed to a source of pain showed significantly more pain resistance and tolerance. The brain, it seems, alters its pain signaling during meditation, decreasing activity in areas of the brain that register pain. It's a good ploy next time you're about to go through something a bit painful, like a vaccination.


It Can Increase Brain "Folds"

One of the main ways in which we assess neural complexity in animals is through the "folds" of the brain: the coils and twists of brain tissue that give brains their appearance. And a study in 2012 from UCLA found that people who meditate regularly can change their brain tissue so that it "folds" more, meaning that they're more likely to process information quickly than people who don't meditate. People in the study who'd meditated for 20 years or more had more "folded" bits in their cortex, particularly in bits that relate to our memory and attention. Concentrating for long periods, it seems, shifts the brain's structure physically so that more material is folded in.


It Can Boost The Volume Of Gray Matter

Brains are made of two kinds of matter: gray matter, which makes up the neural cells, and white matter, which connects them. A 2009 study found that in people who meditate long-term over a number of years, there's an increase in gray matter over time, signifying that they're literally "growing" their brains through the practice of intense concentration. Gray matter doesn't necessarily make you smarter or more capable of solving problems, but it's an interesting reflection on how we use our brains, and how meditation changes their volume — particularly, the researchers said, in the areas devoted to emotional processing.


It Changes The Structure Of The Brain

Research in 2017 from the Max Planck Institute For Human Cognitive & Brain Sciences indicates that, when it comes to mindfulness training, we can actually track concrete changes in the structure of the brain. The study's subjects were given three months of different kinds of mental "training," and had their brains examined regularly. At the end of the 12-week period, the brains of the mindfulness-trained people showed changes in areas related to attention and "executive functioning." or behaviors around self-control and organization.

12 weeks isn't actually a very long time, so this kind of experiment shows how "plastic" the brain really is when it comes to meditation and mindfulness exercises. And we now know that these results can last for a long time. Changing the brain's structure may seem weird, but if it means being more capable of focussing on a goal and less likely to be distracted, then meditation sounds like a good way forward.