Regular meditation has proven benefits for your brain, which in turn can sharpen your memory, boost your mood, and even make you more compassionate toward others. That’s right: the act of sitting quietly for a period of time and focusing on your breath or a mantra or image can have a positive physical impact on your brain.
A major health benefit of regular meditation is that it reduces stress, which can be a constant state for some of us. And by lowering stress levels, meditation prevents a lot of wear and tear on our bodies, as well as prevents damage to our brains. Relaxing the body and calming the mind are good for your mental, physical, and emotional health—but regular meditation can actually do much more than this.
This is your brain on meditation
Studies have shown that meditation has physical effects on the brain, actually growing, or increasing the volume of, specific brain areas that are responsible for:
• Complex cognitive processes including planning, goal setting, decision making, attention, and short-term memory
• Positive mood
• Improving awareness of body, gut feeling, and empathy
• Long-term memory
• Paying attention (which is crucial to improving memory)
Benefits you may notice in your everyday life
When you meditate, you are essentially training your attention (or ability to focus) by tuning out the information overload and jumbled thoughts we live with constantly—and better attention means a sharper memory. Preliminary research seems to strengthen this theory, suggesting that mindfulness meditation may enhance certain brain functions, including your working memory.
In addition, research shows that meditation can increase your ability to empathize with the experiences or feelings of others, as well as your feelings of compassion for yourself and others.
“Meditating holds benefits for people of all ages,” says Beth Ernst, Life Enrichment Manager at Splendido, an all-inclusive community for those 55 and better in Tucson. “Older adults who are looking for ways to easily add a healthy activity to their routine should give it a try. I’ve found that residents really enjoy it; in fact, we’re starting a new round of meditation classes for residents later this month.”
Types of meditation
If you’re intrigued, why not give meditation a try? It’s simple, can be adapted to accommodate physical limitations, and takes as little as a few minutes a day. But remember—if you want to enjoy the brain benefits, you’ll need to meditate regularly, and ideally that means every day.
Here are a few different types of meditation to consider:
• Mindfulness sitting meditation is the most common form of meditation. Sit comfortably with your back, neck, and head straight but not stiff. Concentrate on your breathing and the sensations it creates. When your mind wanders or you become distracted, gently return your focus to your breath. Try this for just five minutes at first, gradually increasing the time.
• Visualization meditation involves mental visualization of an image, which is usually meaningful or religious. While you meditate (as above), you try to mentally visualize your chosen image in as much detail as possible. As you do so, you may also reflect on the meaning of your image.
• Walking meditation is similar to sitting meditation, but with walking as the focus of your attention. Slowly and comfortably walk, focusing your attention on each step, on the movement of your body, and on the feel of each foot on the ground. When your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the movement of walking.
• Loving-kindness meditation focuses on practicing compassion. As you practice cultivating feelings of loving kindness, gradually move your focus from feeling this toward yourself, then to loved ones, and then to people who are less close to you. One study examined Tibetan monks who were experienced, long-term meditators, and found that loving-kindness meditation increased the power of certain brainwaves that are involved in higher-level mental activity.
• Centering Prayer is a simple meditation that involves focusing for 20 minutes or longer on a word or a concept that has special meaning for you. The goal is to allow your mind to reflect on the qualities associated with your selected word or phrase.
• Classes or group meditations may be available in your area, or you can purchase or download audio recordings of guided meditations to get you started. Once you’ve mastered the basics of your chosen type of meditation, it will become a matter of practicing—and enjoying the benefits that come with it.