The other day I, once again, found myself lost in the bowels of Youtube when I stumbled upon guided meditation videos, and of course I had to click on them. I will admit, the first one put me to sleep. But it wasn't the "fall asleep for an hour or two" kind of sleep, because when I did open my eyes, I didn't have that just-woke-up feeling and (I know this is extremely cliche) I felt refreshed. I'm going to try doing that again when I get home from work because if it keeps making me feel like that, I might actually accomplish stuff between getting off of work and going to bed.
Anyway, this encounter with guided meditations got me wondering if there were actually any science-y things going on with meditation, or if it was more of a "it's all in your head" thing, so I decided to scour the great and powerful internet for scientific articles on meditation. It took me a while, but eventually I found a bunch of little tidbits about what happens in the brain during meditation and how that benefits the brain in the long run.
Meditation: A Definition
Meditation is the process of focusing the mind on something (breathing, enlightenment or what have you) and in doing so, calming and refreshing the mind.
When most people think about meditation, they think they have to be a Buddhist monk and sit lotus-style for hours but the bare bones requirements for meditation are pretty simple. In order to meditate you just need a quiet place, time, and a relaxed position you can maintain for a good amount of time (sitting up, laying down, it doesn't really matter as long as it's comfortable). If you choose to sit, make sure your spine is straight; good posture makes it easier to breathe which is a major part of meditation.
It's All About the Waves
The first science-y thing you need to know about in order to look at the effects that mediation has on the brain are the different types of brainwaves there are.
Beta Waves - This state happens when your using your brain for analytical tasks like planning and categorizing. Most of the day is spent in this state because it's the alert state.
Alpha Waves - Things start to slow down a bit in the alpha state. This is when your brain is a little bit fuzzy but still alert, like after doing something relaxing such as taking a leisurely walk.
Theta Waves - Theta waves occur when meditating because this is when you step away from the analytical part of your brain and into the visualization part.
Delta Waves - These are the slowest of the brain waves and are actually the most difficult to achieve. Average people can only get into the delta state by being asleep, but highly experienced monks have been observed achieving this state while awake and meditating.
You're probably wondering, why in the world would you want to slow down your brain waves? Slowing down your brain waves helps activate different brain centers. There's also a bit of common sense involved with slowing down your brain: it allows you to slow your thoughts and focus on the things you want to focus on without your mind wandering off. A 2011 study showed that people who meditated where able to control their alpha waves more, which in turn enables them to ignore outside distractions.
So, meditation helps you strengthen your ability to focus, which really isn't a super big surprise, but now there's science backing it up.
Another interesting thing I found about meditation's effect on the brain is that it can cause some parts of your brain to get thicker. Now if you're like me, you're probably saying "hold on, you can't just make your brain bigger," which is true. So seeing as I have literally no experience with brain things, I was wondering if it was bullshit but lucky me, my one friend has spent a lot of money at college to learn about brains, so I asked her about it. Apparently, while you can't actually grow more actual brain matter or anything, it is possible to grow more connections between the neurons, which would make portions of the brain seem thicker on a brain scan, aka an EEG.
Most people probably think that you have to be a hardcore meditator, like a monk who meditates for hours a day, in order to grow more connections and "grow" more brain matter, but that's not really true. The study that observed that those who meditated had some parts of the brain which were thicker were scanning the brains of average people who only meditated for around 40 minutes a day. So anyone who has some time to spare can make their brain thicker!
So to sum up, meditating can help you master your own brainwaves, which in turn can help you concentrate on whatever you decide to concentrate on. It also has been shown to help you grow more connections between the neurons in your brain, and that will make some portions of your brain look thicker on a brain scan. And this is only the science stuff that meditation does - there a lot of other areas that meditation can improve in your life, like reducing stress and improving heart health.