Meditation and Neuroplasticity
It Will Pass
A student went to his meditation teacher and said, “My meditation is horrible! I feel so distracted, or my legs ache, or I’m constantly falling asleep. It’s just horrible!”
“It will pass,” the teacher said matter-of-factly
A week later, the student came back to his teacher. “My meditation is wonderful! I feel so aware, so peaceful, so alive! It’s just wonderful!’
“It will pass,” the teacher replied matter-of-factly.
The above story, written approximately two thousand years ago by Zen masters, is meant to point the student towards enlightenment. Enlightenment being that state of mind where the one who has attained it, is not affected by the roller-coaster ride of human emotions and is marked by the absence of desire and suffering. The aspirations and miseries that most people experience in life do not play havoc with the constant state of mind a Zen master has achieved. The Zen master sees these events as if he/she is watching a television film. For the average person, the television character’s pleasures and tribulations within the scene are viewed objectively from safely outside the setting in which the movie is taking place. The Zen master too will experience the events in his/her life as an observer, not impacted by the desire or sufferings of his ego, watching his/her fate unfold without interference from preconditioned attitudes. Not affected by his/her successes or failures, the Zen master maintains this constant state of mind, allowing the creative force of the universe to flow through them. How many great teachers in history have shown how this limitless energy, once tapped into, caused a change in their environment? The author need not elaborate on this.
However, this state of mind is not a product of culture or teaching but of the practice of mindfulness itself. Mindfulness is a state of mind where the individual has no thought of the past or the future. There is only the present. Like now. Take a moment and focus your attention on the air going in and out of your nostrils. Nothing else. The past plays no part in your current experience, and the future holds no anxiety. This practice is far more challenging than one would think to maintain for any length of time. But the practice itself causes the effect of a calm and steady mind. By that, I mean mindfulness changes the actual structure of the brain. This phenomenon is called Neuroplasticity and is a relatively recent understanding of how the brain functions and adapts.
There are several profoundly important areas of the brain that are physically changed by the practice of mindfulness, areas of the brain that control the overpowering or even superhuman traits of those great men and women who have gone before us. Images of the brains of subjects and control groups were taken before and after using a magnetic resonance imaging, (MRI). The subjects were instructed to perform a mindfulness technique that would have been practiced for at least eight weeks before the study. In one study, it was shown that the amygdala, a structure which has increased activity during stress and becomes denser during prolonged stress, did the opposite when subjects practiced mindfulness. For those people who meditate daily, the amygdala had significantly less activation during stress and had become physically less dense overall. This insinuates that people who meditate will not suffer the dire effects that stress has on the body overall, i.e. high blood pressure, immune deficiencies, depression, and a host of other ailments.
The amygdala is shown above. There is a significant decrease in density and activity during stressful events for people who meditate daily. Additionally, other studies have shown that there is an increased in grey-matter density in the hippocampus, which is associated with learning and memory.
In another study, people who meditated forty minutes a day developed thicker cortical walls than non-meditators. Studies have shown that as a person ages, the cortical walls become thinner. The thickness of the cortical wall is associated with memory, attention, and decision-making. The conclusion was that the brains of people who meditate daily aged much more slowly than those who do not. Along with the above, meditators have shown increased thickness in the sensory regions, demonstrating that daily meditation leads to an increase in sensory awareness. See diagram below.
SW Lazar, a German scientist, is quoted as saying,
“With a rapidly aging society, it becomes increasingly important to counter normal age-related decline in cognitive functioning. Growing evidence suggests that cognitive training programs may have the potential to counteract this decline. On the basis of a growing body of research that shows that meditation has positive effects on cognition in younger and middle-aged adults, meditation may be able to offset normal age-related cognitive decline or even enhance cognitive function in older adults.”
The prefrontal cortex and the auditory and sensory cortex are shown above. Increases in the density and size of these areas occur with the practice of daily meditation. Additionally, an increase in Myelin, the coating of brain nerve cells, has been documented. A decrease in Myelin may result in depression, dementia, and schizophrenia, and attention deficit disorder.
In Hugh G. Byrne’s book, “The Here-and-Now Habit: How Mindfulness Can Help You Break Unhealthy Habits …” he describes two distinct states of self-awareness. The first is the ‘narrative-focus,’ or extended self-referencing and is the default mode for humans. This state primarily is associated with negative thoughts about oneself, mind wandering and rumination about the past and the future. Typical everyday experiences. The second state is called the ‘experience-focus,’ or momentary self-referencing and deals with seeing those daily tasks in life as moment to moment events and any emotional feelings as transient. The experience-focused state is entwined within and lost in the narrative-focused state making our life experience filled with past influences impinging upon the present moment and future prospects, and vice versa, creating a whirlwind of emotional turmoil. However, Byrne’s states that with the daily practice of mindfulness, the experience-focus can become the dominant state, separating the once combined neural pathway into two distinct neural networks. Now, after the divide, the narrative-focus is accessible only with intent. Having the experience-focus become the dominant state of mind is crucial in the development and evolution of the human condition because one such area of the brain that shows an increase in activity and thickness as a result of the daily practice of mindfulness is the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is associated a person’s personality and expression, decision making and social behavior. Additionally, it is involved in the prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, the determination of what is good and bad, future consequences of current activities, and controlling urges.
The above traits are all fine, and any one of us would lik e to have a superior capacity to judge what is right and wrong, or to control of unwanted urges. However, the real reason for the prefrontal cortices significance is due to a paper written by Elisa Filevich, a researcher at the Centre for Lifespan Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. Using an MRI, Elisa Filevich discovered that the subjects capable of having lucid dreams had an enlarged anterior prefrontal cortex, (located in the front portion of the prefrontal cortex, approximately where the mysterious third eye would be on a person’s forehead) and was highly active during the lucid dreams. Hence, the above studies show that daily meditation does increase the thickness and activity in the prefrontal cortex and that the prefrontal cortex is associated, if not critical, for the ability to have lucid dreams.
Additionally, the practitioner of mindfulness does not have to engage in the practice for extended periods of time. Results have been documented in as little as eight weeks. If you read my previous article on the out of body experience and how lucid dreaming and the purging of the subconscious mind through meditation techniques can produce an actual state of separating the consciousness from the physical body, you will see that for humanity to evolve to higher states of consciousness, one must meditate. The Zen master in the above story is a product of his practice. He sees the emotional states of his student as an impediment to Enlightenment but not because the Zen master was taught that, but because that is how his brain now functions. I believe that once the experience-focus or momentary self-referencing becomes the dominant neural network, the practitioner becomes the observer, allowing that person to connect to a consciousness that is greater than his, i.e. his Higher Self, or the Christ within. The Zen master stands outside of his experience, watching his fate unfold, allowing the Christ Consciousness to rise to the forefront of his experience. When this takes place, the will of the Higher Self dominates, and life flows unhindered by obstacles and detours, allowing the true will to be revealed. Additionally, this is where synchronicities, a theory published by Sigmund Freud’s apprentice, Carl Jung, flourish, and thoughts can be observed creating reality. Synchronicities can be defined, as per Merriam-Webster Dictionary, as ‘the coincidental occurrence of events and especially psychic events (as in similar thoughts in widely separated persons or a mental image of an unexpected event before it happens) that seem related but are not explained by conventional mechanisms of causality.’ (I will elaborate on Carl Jung’s theory of synchronicities in a later article.)
The practice of mindfulness is a tool that can be used to change the foundation of human thought and bring Humanity to the brink of an enlightened state. The method is simple, just watch your breath going in and out of your nostrils, in and out, in and out…and let the infinite wisdom of your higher self to take control.
Gard, T., Hölzel, B. K. and Lazar, S. W. (2014), The potential effects of meditation on age-related cognitive decline: a systematic review. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1307: 89–103. doi: 10.1111/nyas.12348
Lazar SW, Kerr CE, Wasserman RH, et al. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport. 2005;16(17):1893-1897.
Filevich, E., Dresler, M., Brick, T.R., Kühn, S. Metacognitive Mechanisms Underlying Lucid Dreaming. The Journal of Neuroscience (2015) (DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3342-14.2015)