How Does Meditation Make You Smarter?




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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you don’t need to be told about the relaxing effects of meditation. The practitioners vouch for it; and those who don’t, do not dispute it either. Those in the Far East have known for centuries that meditating brings mental peace and spiritual bliss. Now scientists claim that meditation can even alter the brain’s chemistry and functionality.

Over the years, neuroscientists have carried out brain imaging tests on long-term practitioners of meditation, including several Tibetan monks. According to the results of these studies, not only sustained meditative practices but also short-term meditation can produce profound physical, biochemical, and functional changes in the brain.

The Dalai Lama, Meditation, and the Neuroplasticity of the Brain

The slew of research studies into the neural effects of meditation is believed to have been influenced by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Buddhists have a long tradition of intensive meditation. The Dalai Lama sent some of his most accomplished meditation practitioners to the University of Wisconsin to have their meditating brains probed into by neuroscientist Richard Davidson. What followed was a revolutionary experiment that eventually proved the phenomenon of “neuroplasticity” – the ability of the human brain to continuously evolve structurally and functionally.

Davidson conducted his experiment on two groups of subjects. The Dalai Lama’s disciples had undergone extensive meditation training for 5,000-10,000 hours, spanning periods between 15 and 40 years. The other group consisted subjects who had no prior experience with meditation but were made to go through a week-long meditation training session before the experiment.

The brain scan and EEG results of these two groups showed that the monks had greater gamma wave activity in their brains than the non-meditating subjects. The non-meditating subjects, however, recorded a slight increase in gamma wave activity in their brains after undergoing the meditation training.

The Role of Gamma Waves

Electrical activity in the brain manifests as waves. These waves have different frequencies, and at greater than 40 Hertz, gamma waves have some of the highest frequencies of all brain waves. High-frequency gamma waves have frequencies greater than 80 Hertz. Gamma wave activity is associated with higher mental processes like thinking, cognition, and memory formation and recall.

Sustained meditative practices can result in improved brain functionality by increasing the gamma wave activity. Here’s how:

When nerve cells “fire” synchronously, there is improved communication between the different regions of the brain. This aids higher mental processes. High gamma wave activity in the brain indicates thousands of neural cells are firing in unison and sending out signals to different parts of the brain at great speeds. Synchronized neural activity not only improves cognitive functioning but also keeps the brain active and energized to prevent age-related neural degeneration.

According to one study published this year, the brains of long-term meditation practitioners can produce very high frequency gamma waves, ranging between 100 and 245 Hertz. In particular, the increased gamma wave activity is seen in areas of the brains involved in monitoring (dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex), focused attentiveness (superior frontal sulcus, intraparietal sulcus, and the supplementary motor region), and engaging attention (visual cortex). These areas of the brain are associated with awareness and attention that are crucial to perform higher mental tasks like learning new skills. The studies indicate that long-term meditation practice improves attention in the practitioners that translates into more efficient learning.

Another recent study has reported that long-term meditation practitioners are generally able to process information more efficiently than non-practitioners.

Researchers have found that the ability to attend to a task with full focus is also greater in long-term meditation practitioners than novices because the former show less activity in the amygdala region in response to distracting sounds. This finding suggests that advanced meditation practitioners have greater control over how they react to emotions rising within them. Emotionally reactive behavior hampers steady concentration.

The Long-Term Effects of Meditation

The above-mentioned experiments were conducted on subjects while they were meditating. But those who have just made the foray into meditation or are contemplating embarking on the journey would be pleased to know that the effects of meditation continue well after they get up from their mats and change out of their robes!

It was recently demonstrated that experienced meditation practitioners exhibit higher gamma wave activity in the parietal-occipital region of the brain even when they are asleep. This proves that long-term meditation alters the pattern of spontaneous activity in the brain and the effects are long-lasting. This is one of the seminal studies on the neuroplasticity of the brain.

Implications of the Meditation Studies

Neuroscientists have brought into the limelight the benefits of meditation that Eastern seers, mystics, and monks knew from time immemorial. But the discovery of the phenomenon of neuroplasticity of the brain has turned everything neuroscientists believed about the workings of the brain on its head (pun not intended). Earlier scientists believed the neural connections become fixed when an individual reaches adulthood and remain so throughout his life. The connections that get lost due to any trauma or a disease can never be replaced. Fortunately, they have been proved wrong.

The concept of neuroplasticity of the brain and the effects of meditation give hope to countless victims of traumatic brain injury or those suffering from potentially debilitating psychological conditions like ADHD. These people can now dream of restoring the connections in their brains, rediscovering memories, and re-learning the skills they had forgotten. Educationists, teachers, and parents can consider introducing children to meditative practices at a young age. In fact, child psychologists and school counselors can explore meditation as a way to help children with learning disabilities acquire new skills and apply these successfully.

Meditation is an ancient Eastern practice, and it seems that Tibetan monks living in secluded monasteries high up in the mountains had decoded the secrets of the human brain long before EEGs and MRIs came along.

References

Brefczynski-Lewis, J., Lutz, A., Schaefer, H., Levinson, D., & Davidson, R. (2007). Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term meditation practitioners Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104 (27), 11483-11488 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0606552104

Davidson RJ, & Lutz A (2008). Buddha’s Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation. IEEE signal processing magazine, 25 (1), 176-174 PMID: 20871742

Ferrarelli, F., Smith, R., Dentico, D., Riedner, B., Zennig, C., Benca, R., Lutz, A., Davidson, R., & Tononi, G. (2013). Experienced Mindfulness Meditators Exhibit Higher Parietal-Occipital EEG Gamma Activity during NREM Sleep PLoS ONE, 8 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0073417

Hauswald, A., Übelacker, T., Leske, S., & Weisz, N. (2015). What it means to be Zen: Marked modulations of local and interareal synchronization during open monitoring meditation NeuroImage, 108, 265-273 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2014.12.065

Kim, D., Rhee, J., & Kang, S. (2014). Reorganization of the brain and heart rhythm during autogenic meditation Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 7 DOI: 10.3389/fnint.2013.00109

Moran, L., & Hong, L. (2011). High vs Low Frequency Neural Oscillations in Schizophrenia Schizophrenia Bulletin, 37 (4), 659-663 DOI: 10.1093/schbul/sbr056

Tang, Y., Ma, Y., Fan, Y., Feng, H., Wang, J., Feng, S., Lu, Q., Hu, B., Lin, Y., Li, J., Zhang, Y., Wang, Y., Zhou, L., & Fan, M. (2009). Central and autonomic nervous system interaction is altered by short-term meditation Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (22), 8865-8870 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0904031106

Image via Ditty_about_summer / Shutterstock.

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD, is a scientific and medical consultant with experience in pharmaceutical and genetic research. He has an extensive publication history on various topics related to medical sciences. He worked at several leading academic institutions around the globe (Cambridge University (UK), University of New South Wales (Australia), National Institute of Genetics (Japan). Dr. Wlassoff runs consulting service specialized on preparation of scientific publications, medical and scientific writing and editing.
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