This Is Why Everyone Always Tells You to Meditate
It’s not b.s. — the practice really can strengthen your mind like a muscle
This is a modified excerpt from Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by me, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.
One of the oft-repeated pieces of advice on how to deal with pandemic stress is to meditate. This is not a new or groundbreaking tip — meditation practices such as mindfulness have been recommended for years to combat stress, burnout, anxiety, and depression. But now that many of our normal coping mechanisms have been restricted, meditation is getting more attention than ever as a healthy mood-boosting practice. Why is that? What magic effect does focusing your thoughts and paying attention to your breathing have on your brain?
Full disclosure: I write this newsletter as someone who is not a regular meditator, although I’ve tried to be and felt guilty about it for years. I thought that by digging into the science behind the practice I might finally get myself to stick with it.
Your brain, zenned out
Meditation is a practice of attention. Zev Schuman-Olivier, MD, executive director of the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Cambridge Health Alliance, defines meditation as “focusing on an object of attention and returning awareness or returning attention to that object again and again in a way that ultimately creates cortical remodeling.”
The object of your attention varies with different types of meditation; this is critical because it influences how your brain may rewire as a result. For example, in mindfulness meditation, one of the most popular practices, the focus is the present moment, often with an emphasis on your own body and breath. In loving-kindness meditation, the focus is, well, love and kindness, both toward yourself and other people. The areas of the brain that become activated during meditation differ depending on what the focus of your attention is.
By focusing your attention, you can actually shift the activity in your brain, and over time, that can result in more…