How meditation practices change the brain

There is now a sizable body of scientific research capturing how spirituality, especially meditation practices, propel neuroplasticity in the remodeling of the brain.  A lot of this work is being done at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Spirituality and Mind and the Center for the Integrated Study of Spirituality and the Neurosciences, under Dr. Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman.  I was introduced to the above video lecture by Waldman at a meditation workshop and decided to read their book, “How God Changes Your Brain”.  It turns out to be less about God and more about how thinking of God and spiritual practices activates the brain and molds brain structure (and vice versa).

I have excerpted some of the most interesting paragraphs on the mechanisms:

“The cultural evolution of God follows the neurological evolution of the brain. The circuits that generates images of a wrathful God are closely tied to the oldest structures in the brain, and the circuits that allow us to envision a compassionte and mystical God are in the newest part of our brain. We can’t get rid of our old limbic God, which means that anger and fear will always be part of our neural and spiritual personality. However, we can train the new structures in our brain to suppress our biological tendency to react with anger and fear. (p. 123)

“The emotional circuits of our limbic brains have less plasticity than the frontal lobe. For example, we all get angry or frightened in the same way, but everyone experiences love in surprisingly different ways. Still, it’s not fair to call our reptilian brain primitive, for it too has co-evolved with the frontal lobe and now as the ability to adapt and respond with increased appropriateness to new situations and stress…(p. 123-124)

“To bridge the gap between our “old” and “new” brains, a special structure appears to have recently evolved–the anterior cingulate…it connects our emotions with our cognitive skills, playing a crucial role in emotional self-control, focused problem-solving, and error recognition. Most important, it integrates the activity of different parts of the brain in a way that allows self-consciousness to emerge, especially as it applies to how we see ourselves in relation to the world.” (p. 124)

“Based on our research and that of others, it seems the more you activate your anterior cingulate, the less you’ll perceive God as an authoritarian or critical force.” (p.126)

“Since meditation stimulates this circuit, we believe there is also a coevolution of spirituality and consciousness, engaging specific neural circuits that allow us to envision a benevolent, interconnecting relationship between the universe, God, and ourselves. The circuit that extends from the frontal lobe to the limbic system has a rich interconnection of neurons centered in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is activated whenever we see someone who is suffering, and this allows us to feel empathy and compassion…” (p. 124)

“The anterior cingulate also contains a class of spindle-shaped cells called von Economo neurons, which are found only in humans, great apes, and whales. These neurons have an extensive array of connections with other parts of the brain and are believed to be intimately involved with the development of social awareness skills by integrating our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. They guide us toward positive emotions and away from negative ones.  But they are also disrupted by stress. If you expose yourself to ongoing stress, their functioning is reduced,  but if you place yourself in an enriched environment–with a lot of love, communication, and sensory and intellectual stimulation–you strengthen the effectiveness of the von Economo neurons and the anterior cingulate. Since meditation simultaneously reduces stress while stimulating activity in the anterior cingulate, this supports our premise that spiritual practices enhance social awareness and compassion.” (p. 124-125)

“For example, in one recent study, advanced meditators were shown to have superior skills at discerning subtle changes in the environment… The majority of studies also have found that even brief periods of meditation significantly improve your ability to cope with a wide variety of psychological problems and physical disease. Perhaps this may explain why the practice of meditation has increased in popularity in recent years. in 1993, five million people said they meditated. By 2003, the numbers soared to ten million, and in 2007, fifteen million. Church involvement in America is declining, but spiritual practices are on the rise.” (p. 128-129)

“Today, for many people, God has become a metaphor for our search for ultimate truths and our ability to imagine a better future for all. And as a recent UCLA study found, this search for meaning is usually viewed as a spiritual pursuit, not a religious one.” (p.123)

“The funny thing is that the philosophy behind New Thought religion and materialism comes very close to several fundamental neurological truths:

  • Your thoughts clearly affect the neurological functioning of your body.
  • Optimism is essential for maintaining a healthy brain.
  • Positive thoughts neurologically suppress negative thoughts.
  • When you change the way you think, you begin to change your outward circumstances.
  • Consciousness, reality, your mind, and your spiritual beliefs are profoundly interconnected and inseparable from the functioning of your brain.”  (p. 123)

“Our neurological findings have shown that different types of meditation and prayer affect different parts of the brain in different ways, and each one appears to have a beneficial effect on our neurological functioning and physical and emotional health. Some techniques increase blood flow to the frontal, parietal, temporal and limbic areas of the brain, while others decrease metabolic activity in these areas. Intensive meditation may also trigger an unusual form of neural activity–deafferentation–in which one part of the brain ignores the information being sent to it by other parts.  When this happens, we radically alter our everyday perception of the world.” (p. 63)

“By manipulating our breath, body, awareness, feelings, and thoughts, we can decrease tension and stress. We can evoke or suppress specific emotions and focus our thoughts in ways that biologically influence other parts of the brain. From a neuroscientific perspective, this is astonishing because it upsets the traditional view that we cannot voluntarily influence non-conscious areas in the brain. Only human being can think themselves into happiness or despair, without any influence from the outside world. Thus, the more we engage in spiritual practices, the more control we gain over our body, mind, and fate.” (p. 63)

Written by duecalmclarity

Due Quach (pronounced “Zway Kwok”) is the founder of Calm Clarity, a social enterprise that uses science to help people across the socioeconomic spectrum master their minds and be their best self. A refugee from Vietnam and graduate of Harvard College and the Wharton MBA Program, Due overcame the long-term effects of poverty and trauma by turning to neuroscience and meditation. After building a successful career in management consulting and private equity investments, she created Calm Clarity to help more people overcome adversity and unlock their potential. Calm Clarity creates social impact by using revenues from corporate training services to deliver the same high quality training to disadvantaged groups such as low-income first-generation college students and inner city teenagers.


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