A popular myth about meditation is that it's just something to do for stress relief or to gain a higher spiritual connection, but few people actually realize that meditating can actually change your brain. There is an emerging new field of brain science in fact called “Contemplative Neuroscience,” or the study of meditation's effect on the brain.
One of the pioneers in the Contemplative Neuroscience field is Dr. Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin—Madison has been personally involved with meditation since the 1970s and studying it for 10 years. Davidson has scanned the brains of almost 100 Buddhist monks and other regular meditators during this time. He says, “We all know that if you engage in certain kinds of exercise on a regular basis you can strengthen certain muscle groups in predictable ways. Strengthening neural systems is not fundamentally different. It’s basically replacing certain habits of mind with other habits.”
Contemplative Neuroscience has also shown that habitual meditation strengthens brain circuits that help us concentrate and express empathy. A study Davidson recently finished looked at how meditation effected those who had never done it before. He found that the beginners stimulated their limbic systems during meditation–the limbic system is the brain's so-called “emotional network.” On the same token, expert meditators (monks with over 10,000 hours of meditation experience) showed markedly higher limbic system activity across the board. Davidson's conclusion? The monks had changed their brains to be more empathetic!
So meditation can effect your brain while you meditate, but what about when the meditation is over? The answer is yes. There have been observable changes to the baseline brain functioning for meditators outside of meditation. These changes are thought to be linked to generating positive emotions. While Contemplative Neuroscience is in its infancy, this is largely due to the fact that live MRIs (allowing doctors to observe a brain in real time) have only recently become available.
~ Jillian Avey, purelifemeditation.com