The Science Behind the “M” Word (Meditation)

In my last post, Meditation (The “M” word) I promised I would post an article on what science is discovering about the beneficial effects of meditation, and there are plenty.

So without any further ado, let’s get into it.

The Default Mode Network

One of the interesting discoveries made in the last two decades is what is called the Default Mode Network in the brain. This is a series of interconnected brain regions that actually activate when our brains are at “rest” meaning, not specifically focused on anything.

The part I find fascinating is that when our attention is not engaged and the activity of the Default Mode Network is at its highest, the brain tends to turn that activity inward, if you will, and center on us. That includes thinking about the past, worrying about or anticipating the future, and general daydreaming where we’re the star of the show, though, as we’ll see, it can often be a depressing show.

So why does any of that matter?

Well, one reason is that we are apparently at our unhappiest when our brains are wandering off and not in the present moment, at least according to a 2010 study out of Harvard University. In that study, 2,250 participants were given smart phone apps and contacted randomly to record what they doing when contacted and whether they were focused on what they were doing, or whether they were thinking about something else. If it was something else, they were asked whether that something else was pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

The researchers found that the participants spent 46.9 per cent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they were supposed to be doing. That’s nearly half their waking hours thinking about something other than the task at hand (I can’t help but think of Yoda saying of Luke Skywalker, “Never his mind on where he was. What he was doing”).

It’s interesting to note that at the outset of their report, the researchers queried what the ancient traditions have always taught about happiness being achieved by living in the present moment and asked if these traditions were right.

After analyzing all the results the researchers concluded that a wandering mind is indeed an unhappy mind, which is essentially a “yes” answer to their question of whether happiness is found by living in the present moment (we’ll see that there’s a bit more to it than that, such as an understanding of the Four Noble Truths and detaching from desires, but living in the present moment is a crucial foundation which I’ll look at in another post).

Returning to the science, there’s also a lot that we’re learning about the actual effects of meditation on the human brain.

Meditation and the Default Mode Network

So we’ve seen that the Default Mode Network is where we dwell on ourselves, and while it does have some beneficial aspects such as aiding in creativity and planning, it is also pretty tightly linked to anxiety, depression, and obsessiveness. This is because it involves the neurological structures of the brain that are responsible for rumination, which is more colloquially know as the doom and gloom thinking that so often occurs when our minds wander from the present moment.

The good news is that meditation has been found to decrease the activity of the Default Mode Network because different areas of the brain become activated as soon as you begin to focus your attention on something, such as in meditation when you focus on the breath (for a practical how-to guide for meditation, see my prior post Meditation (The “M” word)). But there’s more because meditation also changes the brain for the better.


Neuroimaging capabilities such as MRI scans have allowed brain researchers to discover that the brain actually physically changes depending on what we think about or concentrate on. What we’re talking about, is different specific areas of the brain actually thickening or shrinking, hence the term “neuroplasticity”.

The catchphrase in neuroscience circles referring to the neurons of the brain is, “What fires together, wires together” and studies have now been conducted to determine the specific physical changes that occur in the brain as a result of meditation.

The results include cortical thickening in a number of areas of the brain including the prefrontal cortex responsible for the regulation of our emotions, executive thinking, and problem solving; the hippocampus which is involved in learning and memory and which also tends to be sensitive to stress; and the anterior cingulate cortex which is involved with thinking and emotion.

And if that’s not all, the amygdala, sometimes referred to as the “fear” or “fight or flight” center of the brain also appears to shrink. This allows the prefrontal cortex to have the opportunity to receive a stress signal from the amygdala and take a second between stimulus and response to see if there’s really a threat or not so that you don’t go blindly reacting to the stressor with a knee-jerk reaction and can instead more coolly respond to a situation (unless the stressor is a bear coming towards you, then there’s not that great a need for a lot of cognitive assessment).

Of course some may ask, what’s the minimum time needed in meditation to effect these changes. In my opinion, any meditation is better than none because you’re getting those neurons to fire together and therefore wire together, though obviously the more the better.

And as I said in my last post, you may find that if you stick with it, there will come a time where you wonder how you managed without meditating.

So, that’s a just a very brief overview of the science behind meditation, but there’s plenty on the net if you want to delve into it further.

In my next post we’ll move on to mindfulness, what it is, how to do it, and how central it is to the practice of Zen.

That’s it for now. Thanks for stopping by and see you soon.

For more about the default mode network see:

For more about the Harvard study see:

For more about neuroplasticity and meditation see:







One thought on “The Science Behind the “M” Word (Meditation)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s