Often we are not aware of the pleasure of sitting around doing nothing, letting the mind wander in the here and now, it is on the beach, getting carried away by the sound of the waves; in the bush next to a stream, or simply at home. It is not only a relaxing experience that helps us balance our thoughts after a day’s work and to reconnect; if we also pay attention to our thoughts, to some external object or our consciousness, we will be meditating. Etymologically, meditation comes from the Latin meditatio, defining a type of intellectual exercise. We use it to describe the practice of a state of concentrated attention, either on an external object, our thoughts, or just about the state of concentration itself. This practice, of doing “nothing” has proven to have a massive impact on the human brain.
Since the 1960’s, and especially since 1968 the Beatles went to India to attend a course in transcendental meditation in the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of Transcendental Meditation movement guru, many traditional Eastern techniques of concentration and relaxation have been gaining adherents in the West, such as yoga, tai-chi …. they attributed various benefits, but scientific evidence has always been very low, beyond the simple effect of relaxation that produce the silence and tranquility. However, since 2009, an increasing number of experimental studies have examined the effects of meditation on the role, connectivity and even morphology in different brain areas.
It has been found, for example, favoring emotional control, both functional as well as structural brain. This is not to say that all the benefits that at some point may have been attributed to these meditation techniques are scientifically certain (especially those with dyes sometimes almost miraculous or supernatural) nor pseudoscientific explanations about why these benefits such as the existence of mystical energies that can only perceive a few initiates some kind of particular gift. However, currently there is little doubt about his influence on certain aspects of our behavior through brain functions. The concept revolves around the idea that the brain think it is a benefit to the human brain itself.
Taichi: brain plasticity, sensory attention and motor
This is one of the most recent works. In early 2014, Zuo Xi-Nian, director of the laboratory of functional connectomics of Peking University and member of the Academy of Science of China, and his team, wondered to what extent the practice of tai chi modifies the functional organization from the brain. Connectomics, incidentally, is the scientific discipline that studies how to establish and maintain neural connections.
Tai chi, more itself taichichuan-an expression that can be translated as “supreme ultimate fist” – is an internal martial art of Chinese origin for the melee, although it is now used primarily as a meditation technique in motion . It is based on the realization of a series of chained slow movements, during which the slow breathing and balance movements are kept under conscious control, allowing promote relaxation and self-awareness. Historical data about its origin are very contradictory, and even though the oldest documents are dated to the fifteenth century, some say it could be earlier. The first scientific studies on the supposed benefits of their practice began in the nineties, and indicated that improves blood pressure in people with hypertension, cardiac rehabilitation helps those who have suffered a heart attack and decreases symptoms of depression. Some effects, however, and without undermining its importance, can be explained by simple psychological benefits of relaxation. In this paper we discuss more fully monitor the neural activity tai chi practitioners with a set of functional MRI non-invasive way of examining the functional architecture of the brain with high spatial resolution is made.
A group of volunteers aged 50 to 55, who gathered a same cultural, educational and general health characteristics, was examined. Half were practitioners of tai chi, and the rest had never practiced nor made use of any other specific relaxation technique and balance training. Comparing the neural activity of both groups it was observed that practitioners of tai had more functional homogeneity in a region of the brain called poscentral right turn, which correlates with superior integration of sensory and motor areas, contrary more functional homogeneity low in another area called the anterior cingulate cortex, which correlates with the functional optimization of the control areas of care.
In other words, conclude the authors of this work, the regular practice of tai chi appears to act on the human brains plasticity so that it can improve the ability to sustain attention and promote sensory and motor integration, optimizing the operation of certain brain areas. However, the same researchers do not rule out that these brain differences can be prior to the practice of tai chi, so that they are the reason, or one of the reasons, why certain people want to practice this martial art, and not a consequence of practice it. To elucidate this point, it would be necessary to repeat the study with new volunteers, to examine their brain before they began practicing tai chi and compare the results with new scanners made a few years later. A search of the scientific literature offers more than 200 clinical trials, also called “clinical trials” – about the usefulness of tai chi in such diverse aspects such as loss of balance in old age, cholesterol, arthritis, withdrawal syndrome, hypertension, hyperglycemia, depression, fibromyalgia, post-menopausal osteopenia, cognitive problems, respiratory disease, low back pain, head trauma, stroke, cardiovascular disease, insomnia, immune response, or Parkinson’s disease. In most cases it is not a good comparison group of non-randomized studies, making the results are not entirely generalizable.
Yoga and transcendental meditation
Also in 2014, a group of scientists of the Siberian section of the Russian Academy of Sciences analyzed whether the practice of yoga can permanently affect the emotional function. Yoga is a physical and mental discipline that has traditionally been associated with meditative practices in various Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Etymologically, the word yoga comes from the Sanskrit ioga, which in turn comes from the verb iush, meaning “place the yoke (two oxen, to unite), concentrate the mind, absorbed in meditation, remember, unite, connect and provide” . It is the root of the terms Castilian and marital yoke. Its historical origin is uncertain. According to Hindu mythology, it is eternal and has always existed. Historically speaking, in 1931 the British archaeologist Sir John Marshall discovered in the ruins of Mohenjo-Daro (Pakistan) stamped with figures of the seventeenth century B.C. in which it is alleged anthropomorphic creature with horns in a seated cross-legged posture reminiscent of a typical yoga position, which could indicate that this physical and mental discipline has over 35 five centuries old.
Anyway, it has long been known that yoga can be a good anti-stress therapy and is useful as an adjunct in certain psychosomatic illnesses, meaning that it contributes to overcome without the direct and sole cause of healing. In this study the brain activity of yoga practitioners are monitored and compared with that of people outside this technique, which allowed us to observe if there was permanent changes in the emotional function. In the long term also it appears to increase the conscious control, through the activity of so-called frontal and prefrontal cortex on the automatic responses of the amygdala, which is the area of the brain responsible for emotional responses.
These are only two scientific papers, but there is more. Some have suggested that meditation also increases attention span and cognitive flexibility, i.e.: the ability to change thinking about two different concepts and thinking in multiple concepts simultaneously. Thus, expert meditators are less affected by stimuli that have negative emotional burdens that those who do not practice any form of meditation.
Also they found differences in the mechanisms of emotional control among experts meditators and beginners. While the first meditation acts on the so-called middle and posterior cingulate cortex, beginners do on the amygdala. The difference can be important, since the cingulate cortex is involved in anticipating rewards, decision making, empathy and emotional control, while the amygdala is the part of the brain where emotions are conceived so preconscious. According to the authors of this study, this difference implies that the experts reach emotional stability through the acceptance of their emotional state, while beginners directly suppress negative emotional states. Modern clinical psychology incorporates some aspects of meditation and yoga in their so-called “third-generation therapies”, more specifically in therapy known as mindfulness. Again, although there is some agreement among experts on the usefulness of this technique in controlling anxiety and mild to moderate depression, lack of well-designed studies to draw conclusions about its usefulness in most mental disorders.
In a study conducted by researchers at Harvard University in which the brains of 20 people who practiced Buddhist meditation and compared with other individuals was examined, it was found that those who regularly made had a higher volume of brain tissue in the aforementioned areas of prefrontal cortex and the insula, one related to empathy structure. Along these lines, meditation not only appears to act at the level of emotional control, that is, on functional aspects of the brain, but also anatomical, as in the above cited island. For example, it has been shown that meditation also increases the amount of brain white matter in some major neural pathways connecting associative and receptive areas motor and premotor, and connecting the hippocampus and amygdala.
In the same direction, a few months ago a study conducted by scientists from the Universities of Oregon, Texas and California led to the discovery a molecular mechanism underlying this increase in white matter in expert meditators. Meditation increase the pace of brain waves called theta, which are normally associated with the early stages of sleep and reflect positive and attention to one’s thoughts and the body itself emotional states, which would activate the function of a brain enzyme called calpain involved in memory and learning. This enzyme also acts on neural plasticity -a turn linked to memory and learning-and also enable called glial cells, which have a support function of neurons. Taken together, this would favor an increase of neuronal connectivity.
The effects of meditation
According to researchers at the University of California, experts meditators show an activity of the enzyme telomerase, responsible for maintaining the ends of chromosomes called telomeres -the, resulting in a delay cellular aging. In contrary, we have seen that chronic stress reduces the activity of this enzyme.
Meditation and Stress
Today we know that the human brain is critical for the regulation of stress, and it can modify the functioning and structure. While the brain is able to determine what type of stimuli it has to have to produce a stress response in the body, the key to a stress response is adaptive or maladaptive for the individual body. How the brain responds to stress? Today we know that in front of a situation of chronic stress, experienced functional and structural changes in different regions may be reversible over time. Two of these regions are the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. Since these are regions that are key to different cognitive processes (decision making, attention, learning and memory, emotion regulation), it is no wonder the effects of stress on cognition and emotion.
Could meditation help to minimize the effects of stress on brain function? Several studies published in 2010 and 2011 by different teams have found, for example, that meditation alters blood flow in parts of the brain involved in the stress response, and that the prefrontal cortex is much more active during the practice of meditation during the execution of cognitive tasks that induce a heightened state of concentration. We also detected an increased blood flow in regions belonging to attentional and emotion regulation neural networks, although there is still to be revealed if it is linked to improved learning and memory.
Not only they were detected functional, but also structural changes related to meditation and positive influence on stress. For example, it has been seen that people who have been meditating for years the thickness of the prefrontal cortex of the brain is larger; that after an intensive 11-hour meditation increases the thickness of the white matter in the frontal and anterior cingulate cortices, and that people who have participated for eight weeks in a meditation program also increases the gray matter of the left hippocampus and other brain regions.
What we mean by all this? Bearing in mind what brain structures targeted by the effects of stress (precisely the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus) are, and taking into account that these regions are of cardinal importance to different cognitive processes and the regulation of emotion, we might think that the changes functional and structural found after meditation in these regions could help minimize the effects that stress can have on the nervous system and, therefore, on our cognitive and emotional abilities.
Genes and meditation
Finally, it has also been seen that meditation not only affects the functioning of the human brain and some aspects of their anatomy, but also the functioning of some genes. Last year, for example, it was shown that the regular practice of meditation encourages the expression of certain related anti-inflammatory activities and physical and emotional recovery from stress, ie the resilience genes, some genes called RIPK2 and COX2. Specifically, it appears that meditation alters the function of an enzyme involved in epigenetic modifications, which help regulate the function of certain genes without altering the message containing, in this case it affects the functionality of the two genes mentioned. In short, taken together these results also help to explain some of the beneficial effects of these practices on human health.
Although the number of scientific papers on the various forms of meditation is still not very extensive, the truth is that they all seem to confirm the usefulness of these practices to enhance certain functional aspects of the human brain, such as emotional control, attentional capacity , cognitive flexibility, learning and memory. For some people, meditation may seem difficult to achieve, which is why often these practices have been associated with religions and pseudoreligions with mystical explanations unscientific that all they do, usually, is to extol the role of the guru / coach.