Most of us have heard the virtues of meditation extolled time and again. But what do we actually know about how meditation works?
For many people, understanding the science behind meditation can make it more appealing as a practice. When we know how it works, we’ll be more likely to engage with it and keep it up.
So let’s dive right in: How does meditation work?
How Meditation Works
In order to answer the question, “how does meditation work?” it’s important to narrow our scope. That’s because there are actually two ways to interpret the question. First, we can look at it as a plea to understand how meditation works in the brain. And second, we can look at it as a question of understanding how meditation influences our health and wellbeing long-term.
Let’s start with the first approach.
How Meditation Works in the Brain
In order to understand how meditation works in the brain, it’s important to understand how the brain works at a basic level.
Inside the brain, information about the world is gathered and interpreted through your neural circuits. These are essentially networks of neurons that communicate with each other through synaptic connections. This is most important to know because over time, the least used connections are pruned away and those that are used the most are strengthened.
As you meditate, you exercise some of the most beneficial connections — those that offer super-charged results for your health and well-being.
In effect, repeated use and strengthening of these connections can result in the following positive changes:
Better Awareness of the Body
While in medication, one of the goals is to become more aware of your physical body. You are tasked with noticing how each and every part of you feels — the sensations in your shoulders, back, and head; what it feels like to have your lungs expand and contract with each breath. Noticing these sensations will strengthen those connections that pertain to how you perceive and interpret your physical body awareness. The effects will persist over time.Improved Attention Span
One of the most frequently-cited benefits of meditation is an improved attention span. Essentially, when you meditate, you are exercising your brain’s ability to focus on just one thing at a time. In any given session, that might be your breath, a mantra, an object, or an aspirational emotion or sensation (like peace). With this exercise, your strengthened focus can extend to other parts of your life. You’ll be better able to spend undistracted time on a project, for example.Less Focus on “Me”
Everyone has a “Me Center” in their brain. Its scientific name is the medial prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for interpreting your unique perspective on life — your experiences and the emotions that you relate to them. The connections in the “Me Center” actually grow weak after continual meditation. This is good, however, because it allows you to focus less on daydreaming / ruminating thoughts about what the “self” has done wrong, how the “self” has messed up, or how the “self” is going to fail.More Regulated Emotions
Meditation slows everything down — your thinking and reasoning and your emotions. In doing so, it helps you see patterns where you might not have before. If, for example, you get worked up with worry every time you remember a certain painful experience, you might see this progression more clearly after meditating for a while. In turn, you will be better able to control and regulate these emotions the next time they come up. Moreover, these positive stress management effects are said to persist over time.
How Meditation Works at Improving Wellbeing
“Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
Now, let’s shift to the effects of meditation — how exactly does it promote improved wellbeing?Slows You Down
Life today is fast-paced. It’s important to slow down and move in a more peaceful, resolute way. Meditation can help you do that because it is, in itself, an extremely slow process. Even though meditation is certainly purposeful and much is going on internally, it is also a practice in “doing nothing.” The goal is to sit and not move, to focus but not to think. In this way, meditation is the perfect remedy for those who struggle with sleep problems as it helps you calm your mind before bed.Makes You Aware of Purpose
Each moment of a meditation session is important. Each second of an in-breath or out-breath is to be studied and focused on. In practicing this, you can bring the same purposeful awareness to other parts of your life.Softens Your Muscles
Meditation is excellent for cramped or tight muscles. That’s because with better awareness of the body, you can conscientiously release strain in those areas that are contracted or especially tense.Helps You Notice
Mindfulness meditation, especially, will train your brain to notice the little things around you and within you. Instead of being distracted by jarring events in the past or frightening events in the future, you can focus on the beauty and splendor of what’s right in front of you — even in the small things.
Frequently Asked Questions About How Meditation Works
Q: How do you meditate on something?
A: Guided meditations and imagery-based meditations will often have you focus on something. For example, you might focus on a mantra (a personal “slogan” that you repeat during meditation). Or, you could focus on the visualization of a peaceful setting, like a beach landscape or a beautiful mountain view. You can also meditate on a thought or feeling, such as “peace,” “compassion,” or “calmness.”
Q: What are the different types of meditation?
A: There are many different types of meditation. Here are the most common types:
Q: How long does it take for meditation to work?
A: Meditation is highly effective, but remember that it’s not like taking a pill. You won’t see your mental state change overnight. Instead, incremental progress will be made with continued practice. And over time, you’ll be able to take a step back and truly see how your mental state and wellbeing have changed with the practice. This is why it’s important to give meditation time.
Starting a New Meditation Practice Takes Just a Few Minutes
Starting meditation may seem daunting at first. In fact, many people mistakenly imagine that by incorporating meditation into their lives, they must become professional Yogis who are never distracted by anything and are always calm and focused.
In fact, this shouldn’t be your goal with meditation. Anyone, anywhere can incorporate this practice into their life. It is for all types of people, and it's easy to get started with a quick Unwind Your Mind streaming session. In just 25 minutes, you can start to see real results from meditation. It’s perfect for beginners and ideal for advanced meditators who just need a quick mental reset as well.
Try our Unwind Your Mind streaming service for yourself and see how refreshed you can feel in as little as 25 minutes.
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Written by Clint Johnson
Clint teaches Yoga, Pilates, breathe, and mediation to students and teachers all over the world. Prior to joining the wellness world, CJ as his friends call him, started his career as a MBS derivative trader and portfolio manager on Wall St. Clint is the founder of Anahana, and holds an MBA from INSEAD.