Brain facts

What happens when we meditate?

When I started this semi-scientific blog almost a year ago, I promised myself I would have kept the good habit of writing something related to science (either via talking about my “scientific” experiences through my years of study or via presenting scientific topics that caught my attention). Unfortunately, these past weeks have been very rough for my mental health and I had to skip one post.

I will not talk about what happened but doing a PhD has seriously damaged my mental health (have a look here for a couple of posts about PhD and mental health I wrote in the past months). I sought help during these very challenging months, but it has been very difficult to find, like many other things for a non-speaking german living in what used to be the east part of Germany. Currently, the only thing that helps me go through the day is the thought that this experience is going to be over soon, with or without being able to actually get this PhD, and the realisation that I will not continue my research-working experience in the University, that is currently exploiting me as worker and human being, with very little reward or recognition of the good quality of the research I am conducting.

Said so, since I was not able to find professional help for my bad mental health, I had to look for coping strategies to survive these few months left and, after watching a very interesting documentary of the series “The Mind, Explained” by Netflix, I looked in meditation and its effect on our brain.

What is meditation?

The word meditation derives from Latin meditation, meaning “to think, contemplate, devise, ponder” and it is a process in which we set our attention to our inner variables, both the sensory and mental ones. Even if meditation statuses can happen spontaneously, maybe while looking at the see or while staring at a landscape, meditation techniques are long and repetitive exercises that train the mind to hear signals from our bodies. In the last decades, meditation practices have been added into more and more psychotherapeutic programmes for their beneficial effects. Meditation increases the awareness of the present moment, with a compassionate and non-judging attitude.

But what happens to our brain when we meditate?

Several studies, using MRI scans, showed how meditation can modify the activity of two antagonistic cerebral networks: the Default Mode Network (DMN) and the Task Positive Network (TPN). The DMN is the network working while we are mentally resting and it is composed of the medial prefrontal cortex (have a look here to read about the prefrontal cortex), the posterior cingulate cortex, the hippocampus and the amygdala (have a look here to read about the hippocampus and the amygdala). A regulated activity of this network helps decrease the lack of satisfaction usually associated with the wandering of the mind and the afterthoughts, while creating a self-conscious space where to plan future activities based on past significative events. On the other hand, the TPN serves in the processes that require control and it is able to direct our conscious attention towards both the external and the internal environment. The TPN is composed of the lateral prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, the insula and the somatosensory cortex (have a look below for a schematic of the cerebral areas involved in these two different networks).

Schematics of the brain areas active in the two antagonist cerebral networks. While the Default Mode Network is more active at rest, when an individuals are left to think to themselves undisturbed, the Attention Network, or Task Positive Network, is more active during tasks, when attention is engaged. Modified from medium.com

Meditation is associated in an increase in the TPN and in a consequent decrease of the DMN activity. It is a very important effect, since it has been previously shown that an increase of the TPN activity improves attention and working memory, while a balance activity of the DMN is associated with better cognitive performances and an increase in wellbeing. Anyone who enters in a psychophysics state of relaxation can contain the spontaneous activity of the DMN, up to a point of a condition of internal silence, that paradoxically corresponds to an increase of cognitive abilities. From a biological point of view, this meditation state seems to induce a reduction in the levels of some cytokines (a broad category of small proteins important in cell signalling), such as the interleukin-1, known to be a natural obstacle for the smooth functioning of our cognitive abilities.

The natural tendency of the brain to wander and to fill in the empty spaces that happens in the absence of thought is the consequence of the brain proactive tendency, that always try to anticipate the future and be ready for what might come. This planning attitude is advantageous in many aspects of our lives, but at the same time it is an obstacle in enjoying the present.

We have to remember to take breaks and use this knowledge and studies to have meditative breaks as well: external and internal silence might help us recharge our energies and mental abilities.

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