Meditation Changes the Brain

Mindful meditation not only influences neurobiological processes, it actually changes the composition and structure of the adult brain.

Physical recomposition includes increased cortical thickness in the left hippocampus, which governs cognition and learning — increased gray matter in the frontal cortex, associated with working memory and executive decision making — and decreased cell volume in the amygdala, which is the source of fear, anxiety and stress.

Proven: The benefits of meditation are not an abstract mental construct, they are an empirical, physical reality.

Neurons, Neurogenesis and Neuroplasticity

Neuroscience has disproven the medical dogma that the brain becomes static at the onset of adulthood. We now know that the brain continues to create new neurons (through neurogenesis) and form new neural pathways (through neuroplasticity) throughout the entirety of our lives.

This means that we have much more cognitive control over our bodies, minds, and brains than ever before realized. That fact underlies dozens of studies that show the mind can be trained purposely and effectively through mindful meditation. New neural pathways, representing new learning, new habits, and new skills, can be formed in adulthood.

Proven: The mind is trainable, the brain responds.

Rewiring Emotions, Behaviors and Habits

Absent mindfulness, the brain’s automatic processes interpret our experiences and emotions. This can lead to dwelling, worrying, and ruminating, in attempt to work through and resolve internal dialogue. Unexamined emotions may unduly influence thoughts and behaviors.

In contrast, mindful meditation trains the brain to de-center and direct explicit attention to the stimuli without judgment or the need to derive meaning from it. This mental distance, or meta-awareness, enables self-regulation of thoughts and emotions. This increases emotional intelligence and the ability to commit to new ideas, emotions, and behaviors.

Proven: Mindful meditation creates the condition for cognitive, emotional and behavioral change.

Research in Contemplative Practice

An explosion of neuroscientific study into meditation and mindfulness.
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Meditation Improves Health and Wellness

Neurobiological studies have demonstrated that mindfulness produces a broad range of health benefits. Meditation reduces the stress, anxiety, and exhaustion that lead to lost motivation, disengagement, decreased productivity, and inter-personal conflict.

At the same time, mindfulness has a positive impact on stress-related illness, including digestive disorders, adrenal fatigue, compromised immune systems, inflammation, and chronic disease.

Proven: Sustained meditation is an effective intervention that lowers stress, while improving immunity, resistance and resilience.

Stress and Anxiety

Meditation quiets the brain’s default mode network and replaces worry and rumination with non-judgmental concentration. It triggers mechanisms linked to stress regulation, including lowered cortisol, dampened amygdala reactions in response to a variety of cognitive and social threats, and faster recovery to baseline levels, after the stressor has passed.

Many studies confirm the correlation between mindfulness and stress reduction. Recently, researchers at Johns Hopkins Medical School reviewed 47 clinical trials involving 3,515 participants. The reviewed studies applied mindful meditation to stress, anxiety, depression, pain, and mental health quality of life, and reported positive effects across the range of these issues.

Proven: Mindful meditation reduces stress, anxiety and the downstream effects of chronic illness.

Sleep Quality

The American workforce is chronically sleep deprived, with 37% of adults reporting fatigue levels that negatively impact their daily work activities. Sleep-related health care costs for U.S. businesses are estimated at $150 billion a year. Sleep deprivation is a direct cause of workplace stress, absenteeism, accidents and lost productivity.

Meditation calms the anxiety and worry that produce insomnia and interrupted sleep. Researchers at tanford University Medical Center, the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and USC, among others, have demonstrated that mindfulness improves time-to-sleep and sleep quality, while reducing sleep-related daytime impairment.

Proven: Mindful meditation is an effective intervention for insomnia and other sleep disorders.

Cognition and Working Memory

Meditation increases the gray matter associated with thought-processing, decision-making and executive control; and there is considerable research linking mindfulness to increased cognitive capacity, flexibility and overall performance (Smallwood and Schooler, 2015).

Interventional studies of soldiers, students and teachers suggest that mindfulness also increases working memory (Roeser et al 2013) and fluid intelligence, defined as the ability to process novel information and assess patterns and relationships (Gard et al, 2014).

Proven: Mindful meditation improves cognition and working memory (which in turn, support critical thinking, problem solving, innovation and productivity).

Mental Toughness and Resilience

Professional sports teams, elite athletes and military special forces are all adopting mindful meditation as an aid to concentration, endurance and resilience. They are following the science that shows optimal performance is more correlated to a state of mind, than athletic ability or physical strength.

Multiple studies support the notion that mindful meditation is an effective exercise regimen; that it strengthens concentration and focus, improves the ability to handle stress, and helps individuals reframe and deal rationally with setbacks, trauma and loss.

Proven: Mindful meditation is a reliable fitness program for the mind. It strengthens the ability to cope with stress, and rebound successfully from adversity.

Meditation, Research and Results

Better leadership, innovation, engagement, communications and productivity.
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Mindfulness and Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence has proven to be a more accurate predictor of personal, relationship and career success than IQ. It represents the single most important basket of competencies in the workplace, and is the foundation of effective management and leadership.

Profoundly, mindfulness is at the heart of emotional intelligence. As Daniel Goleman, Ph.D, who literally wrote the book, (NYT bestseller Emotional Intelligence, 1995), describes it: “[Emotional Intelligence] requires the ability to monitor our inner world. Mindfulness is this essential capacity…to see thoughts as they arise, rather than be swept away by them.”

Proven: EQ is critical to leadership, as mindfulness is critical to EQ.

Self-Actualization

Self-actualization is the process of self-exploration and self-discovery, in pursuit of meaning and happiness. Meditation has been an important spiritual pathway to self-actualization for over 2,500 years.

Mindfulness cultivates awareness in the present moment, by training the mind to observe thoughts and emotions at a distance, rather than reacting to them. This equanimity results in a greater understanding and acceptance of the self. As a result, studies show that experienced meditators are happier, more self-compassionate, and capable of greater well-being than the norm.

Proven: Mindful meditation is a path to sustained well-being, a fundamental trait for successful managers and leaders.

Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is the recognition of your emotions and values, how they affect your own thoughts and behaviors, and the impact they have on others. Experts agree that self-awareness is the starting point for effective leadership.

Meditation encourages equanimity, and studies show that the process of non-judgmental observation results in more accurate self-appraisal. Research also suggests that mindfulness has a tendency towards ethical values (Ruedy and Schweitzer, 2010), and an increased likelihood that individuals will behave in alignment with them (Brown and Ryan, 2003).

Proven: Mindful meditation creates the clarity for greater self-awareness and alignment with ethical values.

Self-Regulation

Self-regulation is the ability to monitor, evaluate and control emotional reactions. Absent mindfulness, much of this regulation takes place beyond our awareness.

Meditation reduces automaticity, and systematically dampens signals of threat and arousal from the amygdala, delaying the unconscious auto-shift into fear, anxiety or arousal. This results in a lower frequency and intensity of negative effect (Chambers et al, 2008), less anxiety (Shapiro et al, 1998),  and opportunities for a more adaptive response (Davidson et al, 2003).

Proven: Mindful meditation provides the equilibrium for more effective self-regulation.

Attention and Concentration

American workers are increasingly overwhelmed by technology saturation, information overload and conflicting demands. The result is over-tasking, attention deficit and a lack of bandwidth for insight, innovation or critical thinking.

Meditation decreases activity in the neural networks associated with distraction, (Brewer, et al 2011) and increases activity associated with sustained concentration (Pagnoni, 2012). Numerous other studies show that meditation improves attentional stability, control and efficiency.

Proven: Mindful meditation reduces distraction, and improves attention.

Empathy and Compassion

Empathy is the ability to understand, experience or share the emotions and feelings of another being. Compassion is the urge to alleviate that suffering. Both are central to effective management and leadership.

In Buddhist tradition, meditation’s effect on health, cognition and memory, though positive, are considered secondary benefits. The central objective of calming the mind and cultivating attention is to attain abiding compassion.

Mindful meditation activates empathy and a sense of care for others. (Hutcherson, Seppala & Gross, 2014). However, as precursor empathy fades, networks associated with social affiliation (and compassion) light up (Singer, Ricard, 2014). It’s this conversion of empathy to compassion that replaces emotion with a bias for action.

Proven: Mindfulness initially supports empathy, then converts that emotion into compassionate action.

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