Your Brain on Meditation
October 26, 2017
I sat in a lab at the University of California in the early 1970s, electrodes attached to my head and body. As an Ananda member I had been invited to participate in an early attempt to study what meditation does to the brain. Ever since then I’ve had an interest in these kinds of scientific studies.
Last week I read a fascinating report of a study done at the Max Planck Institute. Researchers looked at brain changes resulting from training in each of three different types of meditation, and found that the different types are linked to changes in different areas of the brain.
In the first type, “focused awareness,” participants watch the breath and internal body sensations, focusing their attention and bringing it back when it wanders. The second type of meditation involves empathy, compassion, and “loving-kindness” for others. In the third type, often called “mindfulness,” participants observe their thoughts nonjudgmentally.
Unfortunately, Kriya Yoga was not one of the methods studied, but the path given to us by Paramhansa Yogananda includes all three of these types of meditation. Focused awareness is central to techniques such as Hong-Sau and Kriya. The study found that this practice “is linked to enhanced thickness in the anterior prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which are known to be involved in attention.” The ACC generates expectations; when those expectations aren’t borne out, it reacts negatively and creates a revised anticipation. For instance, when we expect a door to open, but find it locked, there is a pulse in the ACC. This goes on constantly throughout the day in a myriad of situations, allowing us either calmly to adjust or to become upset each time the world fails to meet our expectations.
Compassionate meditation was linked to increased thickness in regions known to be involved in emotions like empathy. On our path, when we offer healing prayers, send love to others, or mentally repeat an affirmation for world peace, we are enhancing these regions.
Mindfulness changes the brain areas involved in understanding the mental states of others and ourselves. This, too, we do in meditation after our techniques, when we relax and look into the light, or feel God’s love and joy spreading outward from our center in ever-expanding circles. There is no better way to understand another person than to see him or her as our spiritual brother or sister or, even better, as a part of our own Self.
The brain doesn’t create consciousness but only expresses it—otherwise we might actually die when we “die.” Nonetheless, living as we do in this dream world, I find it interesting to see how consciousness expresses itself through the brain.
A major benefit of these studies occurred to me. So many people, including myself, tend to criticize themselves if their concentration wanders. This study shows that there are beneficial results from many different aspects of meditation. We shouldn’t lose heart: Concentration, while important, is but one aspect of this wonderful science. So also are compassion and self-acceptance.
The important thing is simply to meditate regularly. As Krishna says in the Gita, “Even a little practice of this inward religion will free you from dire fears and colossal sufferings.”