Your Brain on Meditation—the Science behind Quieting Your Mind

What meditation looks like under the hood

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley, The Great Courses Daily

You may know that meditation can help you feel calmer and happier, and perhaps you’ve experienced this firsthand, but what is the scientific mechanism that accounts for this? Professor Vishton dives into the research that demonstrates precisely why meditation is so effective.

Woman meditating in chair
Research shows that when people engage in meditation, areas within the brain related to the type of meditation they are participating in get activated. Photo by fizkes / Shutterstock

Meditation’s Effect on the Brain

A wide range of studies has assessed the nature of how regular meditation affects your brain. One of the most common techniques has been to observe how patterns of electrical activity change in the brain during meditation. 

The electroencephalogram—usually referred to as an EEG—involves placing electrodes on the scalp and then connecting them to a system of amplifiers. The system makes it possible to record and analyze the tiny amounts of electrical activity produced by neurons in the brain. 

The EEG has a very good temporal resolution—it’s possible to sample that electrical activity about 1,000 times per second. However, the EEG has relatively poor spatial resolution. It is very accurate when it comes to determining when the brain is active, but it can’t tell where the activity is in much detail.

To see spatial patterns in the brain more clearly, another technique that’s been used to explore how your brain activity changes when you meditate is functional magnetic resonance imaging, often called fMRI. The fMRI technique can record the amount of blood flow to different regions of the brain. 

When an area becomes more active, it uses up oxygen and fuel and creates waste products. Blood vessels in that brain region dilate to enable more blood to flow in to deliver more resources and carry away those waste products. By looking at the circulation patterns, we can thus see what areas of the brain become more active.

If you look at someone while he or she is meditating, it might seem like there isn’t much happening. On the outside, there isn’t. 

However, both EEG and fMRI methods show that the meditative brain is very active, particularly in certain areas. The particular areas that are activated seem to vary with the type of meditation that’s practiced. 

Brain Activation

If you engage in concentration meditation, which is focused on a particular word or mantra, language regions are activated. If you focus on mindfulness, which involves being aware of sensations in particular parts of your body, increases in activity are seen in sensorimotor regions of the cortex.

Several studies have found that, during meditation, the amygdala and other subcortical regions associated with emotional processing become more active. Several studies have found that when people engage in meditation, they report higher levels of everyday happiness. 

One study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that individuals who engaged in loving-kindness meditation, which is focused on cultivating unconditional love, experienced substantial happiness that extended well past the duration of the meditation sessions. This happiness had a compound effect that resulted in other positive changes such as a greater sense of purpose, more social support, and decreased illness symptoms.

Meditators also report fewer problems with regulating their own emotions. For example, perhaps you become upset by something but then you become aware that you’re upset and take some time to cool down and return to baseline before your emotions amplify. Whatever the brain does in these emotional centers during meditation practice presumably plays a role in this. 

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.

About Kate Findley 201 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.