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How Meditation Can Rewire Your Brain for Happiness

It was previously the general consensus that the way our brains were hardwired was the way they would always be. However, contemporary research provides a different outlook with the development of studies in neuroplasticity — the ability to rewire the brain. The practice of meditation is now directing people back to ancient roots to achieve improved quality of life. With healing and wellness eras abundant in today’s society, we delve into the power of meditation and the changes it may have on brain structure and, potentially, overall happiness.

Neuroplasticity: changing the brain

Neuroplasticity is pretty much as it sounds — neuro, meaning 'relating to the brain,' and plasticity, meaning ‘able to be molded.’ The brain's ability to change is profound in neuroscience research.

Neuroplasticity allows for the strengthening of connections in the brain. This structural change, also known as structural plasticity, allows for neural pathways to be rewired, meaning the functions of the brain are inadvertently affected, too. The facet of neuroplasticity that displays changes in cognition and behavior is known as functional plasticity and is the result of these brain regions being altered physiologically. Functional plasticity is important for the brain to transmit and interact with surrounding brain regions. This is particularly important in redistributing functions to different areas in instances of brain damage and can help with facilitating recovery.

The use of neuroimaging techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), magnetoencephalography (MEG), and electroencephalography (EEG), is an effective way to detect and monitor changes in the brain and, ultimately, determine what can positively impact the brain and help us live happier lives.

Meditation and brain structure

Many neuroimaging studies have found a correlation between meditation and positive neural changes. A dark connective tissue surrounding crucial components of the brain and spinal cord, known as gray matter, is essential for transmitting messages to different brain regions. A controlled longitudinal study provided evidence of increased gray matter in areas such as the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), which is responsible for internal and external attention and memory retrieval. A region that also saw grey matter changes throughout this meditation-focused study is the hippocampus, largely responsible for memory, sorting new information, and spatial awareness.

Higher volumes of gray matter ultimately mean better neural processing. Meditation has also been seen to promote grey matter increase in areas such as the prefrontal cortex, which is the hub for executive functions, including impulse control, decision-making, and emotional regulation. Frequent interaction between the inferior temporal lobe, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex means all of these areas could effectively benefit from increased gray matter and function more efficiently. Studies found that even regular short sessions (under 30 minutes daily) of meditation and mindfulness contributed to the changes in gray matter.

What brain functions does meditation improve?

Now we know regular meditation and mindfulness can be catalysts for brain changes, resulting in a range of positive outcomes. But what are the actual benefits?

Some of the most commonly recorded positive outcomes after mindfulness and meditation include self-awareness, emotional regulation, and enhanced cognitive functions, such as memory and learning. Functional plasticity has consistently been noted in the prefrontal cortex after meditation practices (a frontal region of the brain known for its major role in personality, decision-making, and organization), as well as the previously mentioned hippocampus. Further meta-analysis shows another area of increased activity after meditation is the insula, which is the pillar of interoceptive information, such as pain regulation and temperature.

Overall, meditation has been reported to have the following effects:

  • Improved emotional regulation
  • Reduced stress response
  • Lower instances of pain, including chronic pain
  • Better quality of sleep
  • Health benefits such as lowered blood pressure and stronger immune function
  • Enhanced cognitive functions, including long-term memory, attention to detail, working memory, focus, and concentration
  • Better sense of self and self-awareness
  • Improved self-esteem
  • Reduction in negative symptoms associated with mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety

Further longitudinal studies are being conducted to determine how far these long-lasting benefits can stretch, but research shows individuals who practice meditation consistently reap better long-term benefits. Consistent practice of meditation appears to be most effective, but even in the short term, people report feeling calmer. It is important to note that individual circumstances may affect the benefits that arise from meditation.

Emotional regulation in meditation

Everyone can experience difficulties with emotional regulation, especially when life gets stressful. One purpose of meditation is to find a sense of clarity and calm within oneself that can be maintained even during challenging times.

Areas such as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) are responsible for a range of functions in everyday life, and both play a part in emotional regulation. The OFC is integral in decision-making and impulse control, which are key aspects of regulating emotion. This is what generates those more contemplative and subjective thoughts, such as what to do next, opinions, and personal experiences, while the ACC is important in regard to integrating emotional and cognitive processes and error-monitoring. Meditation and mindfulness have both been shown to affect these areas through neuroplastic changes, which in turn can improve emotional regulation.

An improved sense of introspection and self-awareness may even make the most hot-headed people less reactive. An area known as the 'default mode network' (DMN) is the pillar of self-referential thinking, responsible for mind wandering and daydreaming. Meditation has also been seen to affect this area, causing less activity in the DMN. This may result in a reduced amount of rumination (otherwise known as racing thoughts, particularly present in anxiety) and, instead, a calmer natural state.

Being able to recognize and respond to emotions in a healthy way is the bottom line of emotional regulation. When meditation and mindfulness are practiced regularly, it can help program a calmer baseline, resulting in lower stress responses and, in turn, less reactivity. This can greatly improve relationships and self-worth.

Other mental health benefits

Meditation is shown to be able to improve overall mental health, and has a particular aim to take one to a place of acceptance of their emotions. This means being affected by negative stimuli isn’t as easy. Mindfulness and some meditation practices are also parallel with some modern psychological strategies, such as positivity and radical acceptance. The use of these strategies his open up the possibility of improved mental health, clarity, and overall happiness.

One of the fundamental elements of meditation practices is to strive to cultivate positive emotions. These include gratitude, happiness, and peace. Meditation and mindfulness practices may also be advantageous in targeting disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and substance misuse, by being able to stimulate change in areas such as the prefrontal cortex and amygdala. These areas are key players in regulating emotions, processing memories, and decision-making. This means that, overall, meditation may make you feel happier.

How to practice meditation and mindfulness

Implementing mindfulness and meditation practices into your daily routine doesn't have to be difficult.

Firstly, mindfulness is the state of awareness and presence. The goal is to be conscious of yourself and your surroundings and intentionally pay attention to thoughts and sensations. Training yourself to tap into moments of this awareness throughout the day is a good way to get into the habit of practicing mindfulness, which can be done in a range of everyday settings. Noticing your surroundings and paying attention to the smallest things, such as the sun on your face or the sounds of birds chirping, is being 'mindful.'

For meditation, starting with a comfortable environment and position is helpful. Focus is the most important aspect of meditation, so set a timer to best direct your full attention for some time. You can focus on your breath, a mantra, an object, or even just a focal point — explore what works best for you. If you struggle with what to think about while meditating, guided meditation is also another popular strategy, with many podcasts or videos available online.

At the end of the day, meditation doesn't have a strict rulebook. It can be tailored to best help you reap the benefits of inner peace, clarity, and awareness.

Cognitive decline can be associated with aging, however implementing meditation early on may trigger continuous benefits, which can remain with increased age (when the brain isn’t as easily trainable). Stress and memory loss, which have detrimental effects on aging, can also be lessened by introducing routine meditative practices.

The previously mentioned hippocampus, the memory and processing hub, has a pivotal role in the development of age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Being the primary area for encoding memory, the consistent stimulation of the hippocampus through meditation can help maintain better memory through aging and may be a cause for the prevention of such diseases. Studies also show that the changes apparent in the hippocampal region can last in the long term.

Of course, happiness is subjective, but the positive effects of meditation on the brain are made pretty evident through extensive research. The fact that a bit of daily meditation can change the structure of your brain is quite remarkable. Why not start today?


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