According to Sarah Lazar, PhD, one of the first scientists to test the anecdotal claims about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness, meditation can literally change your brain.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past several years, you’ve no doubt heard the buzz around meditation. With a plethora of articles recommending the practice for everything from stress reduction to better focus, and everyone from Jennifer Anniston to your mother-in-law swearing by it, meditation seems to offer significant benefits for mental health.

But how can something as simple as focusing on a single object produce such dramatic results? “Mindfulness is just like exercise,” Dr. Lazar told the Washington Post. “It’s a form of mental exercise, really. And just as exercise increases health, helps us handle stress better and promotes longevity, meditation purports to confer some of those same benefits.”

Listen to our 3-minute guided meditation with author and expert Yael Shy

Using modern technology like fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans, scientists have developed a more thorough understanding of what’s taking place in our brains when we meditate. The practice appears to have an amazing variety of neurological benefits that translate into actual implications for how we see things, interact with others, and approach life.

Here’s what the growing body of scientific evidence is telling us about meditation and how it can change the way our brains function.

1. Meditation Decreases Activity in the Brain’s ‘Me Center’

Research into meditation’s effect on the brain, including a study by Lazar and colleagues and another a series of studies from the Max Planck Institute of Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany, found that participants who practiced meditation exhibited a thickening in the prefrontal cortex of the brain—or what’s sometimes referred to as the ‘Me Center.’

The Me Center is responsible for complex thinking, attention, and personality. It processes information relating to ourselves and our experiences.

“Normally, the neural pathways from the bodily sensation and fear centers of the brain to the Me Center are really strong,” says writer, Belle Beth Cooper. “When you experience a scary or upsetting sensation, it triggers a strong reaction in your Me Center, making you feel scared and under attack.”

Meditation weakens this neural connection and simultaneously strengthens the connection between our Assessment Center and our body sensation and fear centers. As a result, we are able to look at upsetting or unnerving situations more rationally.

2. Meditation Can Help People Recover from Various Types of Addiction

An increasing number of studies have examined whether meditation can be an effective recovery tool for people battling addiction, given its effects on the self-control regions of the brain. One study, for example, evaluated the long-term efficacy of mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP), a group-based psychosocial aftercare, in reducing relapse into substance abuse. At the 12-month follow-up, MBRP participants reported significantly fewer days of substance use and significantly decreased heavy drinking.

3. Meditation Can Reduce Anxiety and Social Anxiety Disorder

Research has also shown that mindfulness meditation can reduce anxiety and also help people with social anxiety disorder: a study by Stanford University found that MBSR brought about changes in brain regions involved in attention, as well as relief from symptoms of social anxiety. A variety of apps are available for download to help those suffering from generalized anxiety disorder or social anxiety to learn how to practice daily meditation. Both the Headspace and Calm app are great options for beginners looking to incorporate mindfulness into their lives.

4. Meditation Can Improve Your Focus and Memory

As meditation involves a strong focus of attention during practice, it can help us to improve our focus and attention even when we aren’t meditating. One study found that mindfulness training improves working memory capacity and reduces mind wandering. After just two weeks, individuals studying for the GRE found their focus and memory improved, resulting in an increase in score equivalent to 16 percentile points—a significant step up.

5. Meditation Can Help You Be Less Stressed in Typically Stressful Situations

Meditation is renowned for its stress-reducing effects and the science backs this up too. Recent research showed that meditation can significantly reduce stress after just eight weeks of training. In another study, meditating before a stress-inducing event was found to reduce feelings of stress during the event.

Are You Ready to Change Your Brain?

So how long do you have to meditate before you’ll notice changes in your brain? According to Dr. Lazar, more research is needed to determine how often people need to practice if they want to reap the benefits. However, anecdotal reports suggest that just 10-30 minutes a day could provide some subjective benefit.

Try meditation for yourself and see if it can improve your psychological wellbeing today with our 3-minute guided meditation from Yael Shy, founder and director of MindfulNYU.

Last Updated: Feb 21, 2020