31 March 2019

How to change your brain: meditate

I have spent most of 2019 researching about the power of meditation for the brain through thousands of neuroscientific studies to put together an article that I hope will prove how that the power of meditation goes way beyond the soul.  One of the main findings that I really became fascinated with was neuroplasticity: the ability of the brain to change and create new neural connections throughout your life, and the most powerful way to do this, you guessed it: meditation.

It is incredibly easy for me to talk about the benefits from my subjective point of view yet when there is scientific proof about the effects that it has on us people start to listen. I’m not saying that it’s like proving gravity or that the earth is round (how is this still in dispute) but in proving that meditation can change the way your brain functions daily is something not to be taken lightly.

A study that grabbed my attention the most was by Harvard neuroscientist Dr. Sara Lazar. Her 2005 findings were groundbreaking and showed a brain similarity with someone who I think you might know. Dr Lazar discovered that experienced meditators had much more neural density, folds, electrical activity and thickness in their prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for cognitive behavior and essentially our personality).  In addition to this study, there are numerous findings that show that meditation “thickens” and grows the prefrontal cortex. This type of brain function is what made Albert Einstein’s brain so unique: needless to say the ability to create this through neuroplasticity and meditation is phenomenal.

When I read about this brain functioning I went on to search for that part of the brain that is responsible for our emotions, survival instinct and memory: the amygdala. The simplest way to understand this is the fight or flight process with fear and how we both perceive and deal with any situation controlled by the amygdala. Fear, anxiety, and stress are often a catalyst for so many people to start meditating, in fact anxiety is exactly why I did, the study that I found quite literally blew my mind.

In 2016, a team of Spanish and German (Yang et al) fMRI imaged the brains of meditation beginners before and after 40 days of mindfulness training to see the differences. Naturally, after the six weeks, their anxiety and depression scores had decreased yet the part of the study that is truly phenomenal is that the participants had dramatically decreased their amygdala in size and volume, let’s just remind ourselves that this was achieved in only six weeks. The implications of this study show that we can learn to control our primitive brain and teach ourselves to build up a protective layer against the negative effects of stress and anxiety before they take control of us. Interestingly this study also found out that we can strengthen the Temporoparietal Junction (TPJ) associated with our emotional intelligence (EQ) through meditation. We know ourselves that meditation gives you the tools you need to deal with your emotions but this finding proves that no matter how deep you may be into depression, we can get out, and we can create a neurological change. I read this study for the best part of a week as I was fascinated and I will be writing my thoughts on IQ vs EQ as in 2019 I believe that IQ is completely outdated and our EQ is all that matters.

When delving further into neuroplasticity there is one more part of the brain that I wanted to mention (believe me I could write so much more) and that is the Hippocampi. This part of the brain is responsible for learning and memory and again I wanted to see if, through neuroplasticity, the way we meditate would physically effect this. In another study by Dr Lazar her research shows that meditation dramatically increased Hippocampal cortical thickness, with magnitude determined by experience. In essence, this means that meditation has the power to shape the learning and memory center of the brain into something phenomenal. Our intelligence is not set the day we are born, we have the power to take control. If you want to create a strong memory capability and become a super learner… start meditation.

I believe that meditation is truly the greatest gift that we can give to ourselves that can be done anywhere, anytime and it costs us nothing but time. Can I let you in on a little secret…. meditation is not just about achieving inner peace, it’s about accepting your feelings, emotions, and energy whatever that might be for you. When I meditate it can start this fire within me that fills me with light and excitement, it can fundamentally change my mood and give me purpose. In order for it to make more sense, I have tried to break down how I meditate down into three parts: breath, affirmations, and mudra…. I hope this may help if you are new to this practice.

 

Part one: Breathe;

While this may seem simple to breathe in and out it is all about how we do it that has a neurological effect on our body. I always like to visualise that I am breathing in deeply through the throat, chest then into the belly. We want to imagine that we are creating so much space as we breathe in and then slowly breathe out pushing all the breath out of the body. When the exhale is longer than the inhale it has an effect on the parasympathetic nervous system genuinely getting the mind and body to relax. This stuff is so powerful and it is all within your control to try to achieve it.

 

Part two: Affirmations;

If you can take one thing from this article it is that daily affirmations are life-changing. I watched a fascinating Ted Talk from Dr David Vago about Self-Transformation Through Mindfulness. As I have explained above, the brain is sculpted and can be trained through our everyday moment-to-moment perceptions and emotions. This is genuinely powerful stuff and what I love about this Ted Talk is when Dr Vago was studying he was encouraged not to pursue his interest in mindfulness originally as it was not scientifically recognised. He has gone on to find groundbreaking results as part of the Harvard faculty and is recognised as a game changer in his field. My perception of this and how I try to train my mind daily is through affirmations. I wake up and think of one that helps me Power Up for my day: I AM ENOUGH, or I AM HAPPY. If you tell yourself over an over that you are happy you will see how much you end up smiling. It is phenomenal!

 

Part three: Mudra:

A mudra is a symbolic sign we make mostly with our hands and our fingers. It allows us to channel the energy flow within the body and provides comfort while meditating.  Harvard research provides information that our mind wanders 47% of the time! That is almost half of our lives that we are not in the present moment. Giving yourself this focus of even trying out a mudra is something for the mind to focus on in this time of stillness. Try the Gyan Mudra which is my go-to when I meditate, it creates a loop of energy and comfort that is easy to work with and all you need to do is touch your index finger to your thumb.

 

I really hope that you enjoyed this and start to meditate. Always remember that with meditation have no expectation… just close your eyes, breathe, and let the magic happen.

 

Love

Kirstyx

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