Neuroplasticity: How Meditation Changes Your Brain

Neuroplasticity is the word for the brain’s capacity to rewire itself through experience and learning. Our brains are “plastic.” That is, it can easily be molded through external stimuli. The brain actively grows and rewires itself in response to stimulation and new learning. Neuroplasticity is the reason why stroke patients can relearn skills after brain damage.

How Physical and Mental Fitness Intertwine 

Brain fitness, mental fitness, and mental exercise all mean the same thing: the act of performing a task that stimulates the brain and keeps it resilient. Engaging in regular aerobic activity leads to structural changes in the brain resulting in improved cognition.

Physical exercise increases nerve branching and in some cases triggers regeneration of new nerve cells especially in the memory centers of the brain. Physical exercises help the individual to learn new things and to be more alert and attentive owing to the structural changes.

Scientists believe that physical exercises trigger increased blood flow to the brain. The greater the blood flow, the more oxygen and other important nutrients reach the brain. This may explain the cognitive improvements associated with exercise.

Similarly, mental fitness is exactly what it sounds like: keeping the brain in a healthy state by performing a mentally stimulating task. Mental exercise refers to a series of exercises that help you to be more alert, think rationally and logically, make sound and correct decisions, and boost a declining memory.

Incorporating mental exercises into your life can help you reap the benefits of a sharper mind. For this reason, it’s not surprising that in general people who possess a higher level of mental agility are also physically healthy. Individuals who exercise their minds regularly live significantly longer without any signs of age-associated diseases. 

Use It or Lose It

A learning/stimulating environment maintains, builds, and remodels neural connections. Several regions of the brain that are involved in memory, reflection, decision making, and planning have cells that can mature into functioning neural cells.

The brain actively grows and rewires itself in response to stimulation and learning. The concept of “use it or lose it” applies to the neural pathways and connections in our brains as well. A mentally active individual’s brain is a dense forest of thickly branched neuronal connections. Research studies find that any mental exercise, including but not limited to solving complex equations and puzzles, building new experiences, memorizing passages and texts, and recalling correctly whatever we memorized, delays the onset of neurodegenerative diseases by successfully strengthening all the areas of the brain. 

Meditation for Mental Fitness           

Now, here is some interesting news for yogis. A recent study, Structural plasticity of the social brain,(1) found that different forms of meditation can have different positive effects on the mind, from improving attention span to making an individual more empathetic, reducing stress levels, or helping a person stay calm in the midst of pressure.

Most strikingly, however, it appears practicing different forms of meditation resulted in different parts of the brain undergoing structural changes, providing impressive evidence for neuroplasticity in adults through brief and concentrated meditation practice.

The researchers gathered over 300 people to take part in three different training modules—each focusing on a different type of meditation—and collected longitudinal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data throughout a nine-month mental training intervention.

The first group practiced Breathing Meditation and Body Scan with attention drawn to sensations of breathing and focusing on various parts of the body in a systematic fashion while paying close attention to sensations occurring in these body parts. Additional exercises included walking meditation and meditations on vision, sound, and taste. All these practices required mindfulness and a deliberate focus of attention on moment-to-moment experience, monitoring of distractions, and reorienting toward the object of attention in the meditation. 

The second group practiced Loving-Kindness Meditation, in which participants were introduced to ways of connecting with the feeling and motivation of love and care and directing these feelings toward oneself and others. To sustain these experiences of loving-kindness, participants were asked to mentally repeat phrases such as “May you be happy,” “May you be healthy, and “May you be safe.”

The third group participated in a program called “The Affect Dyad.” In this face-to-face partner exercise, participants contemplated situations that they experienced as difficult and for which they were grateful. After one speaker finished, roles were switched. The objective of this exercise was to cultivate empathic listening, observing difficult emotions and their effect on the body, and developing gratitude and positive effect in the speaker. 

After being trained in these techniques, researchers then analyzed the participants through an MRI brain scan, a behavior test, and psychosocial stress test. They found that depending on the training technique that was practiced certain parts of the subject’s brain’s thickness changed significantly.

For example, for the mindfulness meditation, researchers observed changes in the cortex related to attention and executive functioning while for the other two techniques, subjects showed increases in the limbic system, a brain region associated emotional regulation. All three groups reported less stress in their lives and their cortisol values showed up to a 51 percent reduction.

Participants who engaged in loving-kindness meditation or the Affect Dyad technique also displayed selective behavioral improvements with regard to compassion and perspective taking. These changes in behavior corresponded with the degree of structural brain plasticity in specific regions in the cortex that supports these capacities. 

The take-home message from the study: all forms of meditation have variable positive benefits for the mental well-being and pave the way for a peaceful and harmonious living. If you wish you can use the results of this study when you are choosing a meditation technique that’s right for you.

Reprinted with permission from Yoga for Healthy Aging.

Ram Rao, Ph.D. With a doctorate in Neuroscience, Ram presently serves as a Research Associate Professor at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. He focuses on various aspects of age-associated neurodegenerative diseases with emphasis on Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, Ram completed the academic training at the California College of Ayurveda (CCA) and received his certification as a Clinical Ayurvedic Specialist. He has been a faculty of the California College of Ayurveda and teaches in their Nevada City location. Ram is also a dedicated Hatha yoga practitioner and is a Registered Yoga Teacher from Yoga Alliance USA. In his spare time, he offers consultations in YAMP techniques (Yoga, Ayurveda, Meditation & Pranayama). Ram has published several articles in major Yoga/Ayurveda magazines and has been a featured speaker in several national and international meetings and symposia. He is a member of the National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA) and is on the Research Board of the Association of Ayurvedic Professionals of North America (AAPNA). 


Study citation

1. Valk, S. L., Bernhardt, B. C., Trautwein, F. M., Böckler, A., Kanske, P., Guizard, N., Collins, D. L., … Singer, T. (2017). Structural plasticity of the social brain: Differential change after socio-affective and cognitive mental training. Science advances, 3(10), e1700489. doi:10.1126/sciadv.1700489

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