Although meditation has been around for centuries, scientists continue to learn how it can affect the brain. Recent research indicates that meditation alters the brain’s structure and how it functions, as well as changing the brain’s networks. These changes correlate with a reduction in stress, anxiety, and depression; improvements in focus and memory; and might even preserve the brain as it ages. Adding meditation to your life could be the missing link in your health and wellness plan.
Meditation’s Effect on Stress and Regulating Emotions
Meditation is the practice of thinking deeply or focusing the mind for a period of time with the goal of obtaining relaxation and inner peace. Although there are many different types of meditation, techniques are similar and tend to overlap. Regardless of the type of meditation, studies show it has a variety of beneficial neurological effects.
Research indicates that meditation is remarkably effective for managing stress.1 Scientists have found that meditation induces changes in the brain and nervous system that help move the body from "fight-or-flight" mode to "rest-and-digest" mode, at which time the heart rate slows and the body enters a calm state.2
Studies show that regular meditation practice re-wires the brain by increasing the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls learning and memory and plays an important role in regulating emotions.3 Individuals who sit quietly in meditation for just one hour per week report they are more content and joyful.3
Mindfulness, one form of meditation, is the practice of purposefully focusing on the present moment without evaluation or judgment. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a program that offers mindfulness training to assist in the management of stress, anxiety, depression, and pain. In one small study, researchers concluded that participating in an eight-week MBSR program increased the cortical thickness of the hippocampus.4
In the study, each participant had an MRI brain scan before and after the MBSR course. Researchers then compared the scans and found participants showed increases in the size of the hippocampus following participation in the mindfulness program.4 It is generally believed that an increase in the volume of the hippocampus correlates to improved emotional regulation, while a decrease in hippocampus volume is a risk factor for negative emotions and stress. Additionally, several mental health disorders, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are associated with decreased volume and density of the hippocampus.4,5
Another area of the brain that meditation affects is the amygdala, which is in the middle of the brain next to the hippocampus. The amygdala is primarily involved in processing emotions and memories associated with fear. When you feel threatened, the amygdala sends information that prepares your body to either face the situation (fight) or to avoid it (flight).6
In a stressful situation, the frontal lobes of the brain – responsible for high-level cognitive skills – typically override the amygdala to ensure you respond to the perceived threat in a rational manner. However, if the stressful situation causes strong enough feelings of anxiety, anger, or fear, the amygdala can take over – leading to overreactive, illogical, or irrational behaviors.6
MRI and brain activity scans indicate that long-time meditators tend to have lower amygdala activation when faced with threatening or stressful situations.7 Studies also indicate that eight weeks of MBSR training can decrease the amygdala’s volume.4 It’s believed that these effects can mitigate the fight-or-flight reaction in favor of a more rational response.
Additional research has shown that meditation strengthens the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, providing better control over emotions.7
Meditation’s Effect on an Aging Brain
A 2015 study indicates that regular meditation might preserve the brain’s gray matter as a person ages.8 Gray matter makes up the outermost layer of the brain and plays a significant role in all aspects of human life. It contains a large number of neurons and is involved in sensory perception, speech, and decision making and allows individuals to control their movement, memory, and emotions.9
In the study, researchers compared the brains of 50 individuals who meditated regularly over a period of 20 years with the brains of those who didn’t meditate. Although both groups showed a loss of gray matter as they aged, the loss was more pronounced in non-meditators.
The human brain begins to deteriorate after the first two decades of life. This degeneration increases with age and is associated with many of the deleterious effects of aging, such as cognitive decline.8,9 The researchers caution that the study does not specifically indicate that meditation preserves gray matter and that more research is needed.
Meditation’s Effect on Concentration and Attention
A so-called “wandering mind” makes it hard to focus, which interferes with the ability to accomplish tasks and goals. Individuals who meditate indicate that one of the primary benefits of meditation is that it improves attention and concentration.
It’s believed that meditation decreases activity in the default mode network (DMN), the brain network responsible for mind-wandering, among other functions.10 Mind-wandering occurs quite often throughout an average person’s day. It is often characterized by ruminating or worrying about the past or the future and is associated with unhappiness. MRI studies show that meditation can decrease DMN activity, “quiet” the wandering mind, and increase activity in the brain regions involved in cognitive and emotional control.10,11
In another study, researchers compared the brain scans of people who meditate to those who don’t. Results indicate that those who meditate have more stability in the ventral posteromedial cortex – the region of the brain linked to spontaneous thoughts and mind-wandering.12
There is a plethora of evidence that meditation impacts brain function, form, and networking. Those who regularly meditate don’t need a study to verify the positive impacts that meditation has on their mental or physical well-being. Experiment to find the type of meditation that works best for you to begin reaping the benefits of this centuries old practice.
A Word from Thorne
In addition to meditation and other lifestyle approaches for brain support, explore Thorne products that might help support a healthy brain as you age.* Learn more about how DHA affects the brain from Dr. Brent Bauer of Mayo Clinic.
Are you looking for other techniques to help deal with stress? Consider Thorne’s easy, at-home Stress Test that measures salivary adrenal hormones cortisol and DHEA. The results also include personalized diet, lifestyle, and nutritional supplement recommendations based on your results.
Yaribeygi H, Panahi Y, Sahraei H, et al. The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI J 2017;16:1057-1072.
Bauer B, Kermott C, Millman M. Mind-body medicine. In: Mayo Clinic: The Integrative Guide to Good Health. Birmingham, AL: Oxmoor House; 2017.
Luders E, Toga A, Lepore N, Gaser C. The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: Larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter. Neuroimage 2009;45:672-678.
Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, et al. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Res 2011;191(1):36-43.
Singleton O, Hölzel BK, Vangel M, et al. Change in brainstem gray matter concentration following a mindfulness-based intervention is correlated with improvement in psychological well-being. Front Hum Neurosci 2014;8:33.
Ropper AH, Samuels MA, Klein JP, Prasad S, eds. Adams and Victor's Principles of Neurology, 11e. McGraw Hill; 2019.
Kral TRA, Schuyler BS, Mumford JA, et al. Impact of short- and long-term mindfulness meditation training on amygdala reactivity to emotional stimuli. Neuroimage 2018;181:301-313.
Luders E, Cherbuin N, Kurth F. Forever young(er): potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation on gray matter atrophy. Front Psychol 2015;5:1551.
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Killingsworth MA, Gilbert DT. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science 2010;330(6006):932.
Afonso RF, Kraft I, Aratanha MA, Kozasa EH. Neural correlates of meditation: a review of structural and functional MRI studies. Front Biosci (Schol Ed). 2020;12(1):92-115.
Pagnoni G. Dynamical properties of BOLD activity from the ventral posteromedial cortex associated with meditation and attentional skills. J Neurosci 2012;32(15):5242-5249.