You sit down, focus on your breathing, and attempt to get rid of all the stress of the day through a few minutes of meditation — but what really happens in your brain when you’re meditating? The answer, experts tell Bustle, is more complex than it might seem. The neuroscience of meditation is a broad and complicated area of research, and scientists are often more interested in the impact of your meditation practice on your brain over the long term.
“If meditation just produces changes when you’re meditating, it’s like a drug, and it would wear off — and what would be the point of that?” Dr. Richard Davidson, PhD,the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds, tells Bustle. However, the changes that occur in your brain while you’re meditating build up over time to produce remarkable shifts in cognition and brain structure. The meditating brain is a very cool thing.
Your brain on meditation looks very different depending on how long you’ve been meditating — and, importantly, what kind you’re practicing. “When one meditates, these brain changes relate to the stages of practice, and the meditation technique one uses,” Dr. Yi-Yuan Tang, PhD, endowed chair in Neuroscience at Texas Tech University, tells Bustle. According to his research published in Nature in 2015, brain activity changes depending on whether you’re a full novice, a relatively experienced meditator, or a pro. If you’re in the early stage, Dr. Tang says, “the early stage recruits more brain activity because the meditator puts more effort to control their mind.” During the middle stage, brain activity is “mixed”, but when you become seriously experienced, brain activity drops.