How We Can Take Better Care of Our Brains
We go to the doctor to keep our bodies healthy. We go to the dentist to keep our teeth healthy. We try to eat right and exercise so we psychically feel strong, but what are we doing to ensure our brains perform at their best every single day? Unfortunately, for most, not very much — it’s not something we think about it. For what is arguably the most important organ of our body, the majority of us are guilty of not giving it the attention it deserves to ensure it's the strongest and healthiest it can be every single day.
This week is Brain Awareness Week, a global campaign to enhance public awareness of brain research. To celebrate, we explore the effects mindfulness and the practice of meditation has on our brains, specifically as it relates to memory, sleep, stress, depression and anxiety.
Scientists hypothesize that meditation may be able to reverse the impact of memory loss due to stress, anxiety, and aging by activating and enhancing certain areas in the brain. Meditation has shown to activate structures associated with episodic memories (autobiographical events) and emotional processing. Some evidence also suggests that meditation can improve the efficiency of the fronto-parietal attention network (an area involved in passive rest and mind-wandering in the brain). Several studies support the idea that a high degree of mindfulness may improve memory by increasing attention; however, it has been suggested by one study that mindfulness may affect the memory by activating parts of the brain predominantly involved in decision-making processes rather than networks affecting attention.
Relaxation techniques, specifically meditation, have been shown to alter brainwaves. One review assessed the effects of a meditation practice on the frequency of certain brainwaves. Their review concluded that following the practice there were increased frequencies of alpha and theta waves - brainwaves known for promoting relaxation and reducing stress. While this review found increases in lower frequency brainwaves, other studies have found that in experienced meditators, there is a reduction in high frequency brainwaves. Due to these changes in brainwaves, it is possible that those suffering from insomnia would benefit from a meditation practice.
Research is focused on finding the possible ways in which meditation alleviates the impact of stress. While there is still much to learn in terms of brain-body interactions and the role of environment and genetics, several connections have been made. Three prominent stress-reducing changes associated with meditation may include improvements in perception, coping, and resilience. Through consciously modifying these traits, we may be able to improve our capacity to manage how we experience external stressors, which could make chronic stress less burdensome on the body and mind.
Depression & Anxiety
One important thing we need to understand when figuring out the cause of anxiety disorders and depression is the role of the amygdala. The amygdala is a brain structure known for its role in modulating the fear response. About the size of an almond, this structure evaluates the importance of stimuli, determining if the stimuli could pose a threat or if it has some sort of associated benefits. Additionally, the amygdala is responsible for the hormonal response to threats. Researchers have demonstrated that the amygdala can change in metabolism, blood flow and response to stimuli.
For example, when people with depression are exposed to a happy event, their amygdala is found to be underactive. However, when they are exposed to a sad event, their amygdala becomes overactive, promoting the autonomic nervous system’s stress response and producing increased stress hormones. This is likely related to the volume of the amygdala which tends to be larger in those with depression.
Using meditation, people have been shown to reduce the size of their amygdala. One study followed two groups consisting of over 3,500 participants to assess whether a regular yoga and meditation practice had any effect on the brain. They found that the group who practiced yoga and meditation had smaller amygdala volumes than the control group who did not practice. It has also been demonstrated that meditation can reduce amygdala activity and thereby decrease depression scores.
To dive deeper into the exact science of meditation and to fully understand its exact effects on our brains click here to read our comprehensive report called “The Science of Meditation”.