There’s something incredible about the brains of long-term meditators

When I talk about long-term meditators, I’m referring to people with 10,000 hours+ of practice. 

I, myself, am in the thousands of hours, but I have a few years to go at an hour or an hour and a half a day before I reach 10K.

That said, I am really fascinated by the brains of long-term meditators. There are some incredible things that happen. It makes me want to get an MRI just to see what’s going on in my own head. 

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Brain structures change with long-term meditators

long-term meditators

Amygdala = AMY; anterior insula = AI; anterior cingulate cortex = ACC; orbitofrontal cortex = OFC. Other structures: medial prefrontal cortex = dlPFC, mPFC; anterior cingulate cortex = ACC; posterior cingulate cortex = PCC and the precuneus (PC) participate in more automatic, bottom-up inferences of other people’s mental states; whereas structures like the mPFC and the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) are involved in more cognitive theory of mind skills.

Photo credit: Billeke P and Aboitiz F [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Amygdala

This structure is located toward the lower part of the brain. It’s associated with the fight or flight stress response. It shrinks markedly in long-term meditators such that reactivity to positive or negative stimuli is greatly reduced.

For me, personally, I still feel stress, even as a medium-term meditator. But I can tell it has a much-reduced impact on my life. More and more people have started to tell me that I almost always seem happy and calm.

Posterior cingulate

This structure has an anterior and posterior section in the brain. Both are affected by meditation insofar as they grow thicker, especially the anterior cingulate, with regular meditation.

This is the part of the brain that affects mind-wandering and plays a role in emotion regulation. It plays a role in self-consciousness, as well as social awareness.

Pre-frontal cortex

This brain structure helps with learning new things and memory. It naturally shrinks as people get older. However, in long-term meditators, the opposite happens! People with 10,000 hours of meditation have brains that are younger than people of the same age.

Folks who are 50 years old and have meditated 10,000 hours, have brains that look like 25 year olds according to MRI scans!

Left hippocampus

This structure assists in learning, memory, cognition, as well as emotion regulation. It also gets thicker with more meditation.

Other structures change, too. Things like the precuneus (also involved in yawning), the pons, thalamus and more, all play a role and are changed by meditation.

Brainwaves

The brainwaves of long-term meditators change, too. Most of us who have less than 10,000 hours of meditation spend our waking hours in a “beta” brainwave state.

Long term meditators – especially those in the tens-of-thousands of hours range – have different brain waves and states in which they regularly operate. They go beyond beta, and into a gamma state – regularly.

This state is essentially when you experience “flow.” You are very focused, all your senses are working together, and yet you might feel a bit euphoric. Most people experience this brainwave state in brief bursts.

long-term meditator

Other characteristics of long term meditators

  1. They have the ability to have sustained focus and concentration
    • I can vouch for that – I have the ability to tune things out and hyperfocus on a task
  2. Mono-tasking and more efficiency
    • Long term meditators focus on one task at a time, with greater efficiency
    • They understand that it’s unproductive and inefficient to multi-task, as the brain is not designed to do this
  3. They sleep well
    • Because they’re often calm and not anxious, and can relax, this is also conducive to sleeping.
    • I have a family history of insomnia – I usually sleep well.
  4. They have increased happiness & compassion
    • Ram Dass was a Harvard professor “with a life” until he met Maharshi. The love he felt from this master changed everything for him.
    • There are some days where I just feel like I utterly have this crazy love for the world. I have not experienced the love that Ram Dass describes in his books, but when you meditate on love and kindness, you will increase it in your life.
  5. Long-term meditators have an improved immune system
    • A stressed-out person is more prone to getting colds and flu – we know this. If you’re actively reducing your anxiety through meditation, it would stand to reason that your immune system would improve.
    • I would agree, but I either am slow in this area, or I would just be sick all the time, because I got the flu twice in 2017.
    • I do feel like I get sick less severely than if I weren’t a meditator

What does this mean for the rest of us?

Anyone who starts meditating will start to feel benefits as soon as the first session, such as feeling more calm – at least in the moment. However, with 8 weeks of a 40-minute daily practice produces changes in the brain

Scientists aren’t sure what the minimum time is, however, to see benefits. Yes, I myself will teach that you can start to see differences with as little as 10 minutes a day, but more is better. Retreats can help jump-start your practice.

New meditators often say they start to feel the effects of better concentration, sleeping better, compassion, better overall health, etc, after just a few weeks of practice.

References:

Meditation affects brain networks differently in long-term meditators and novices
Seven-year follow-up shows lasting cognitive gains from meditation
Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brain
How Meditation Changes the Structure of Your Brain
Long Term Benefits of Meditation
The Remarkable Brains of Long-Term Meditators

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