Meditation has been shown to alter the nervous system. It changes the size of brain areas, their connectivity, and their activity. It even appears to protect the brain from the degeneration that normally occurs with aging. These changes are thought to underlie meditation effects on physical and psychological health. These effects of meditation were reviewed in a previous post
The increased connectivity between brain areas implies that meditation may make the nervous system more efficient, processing information faster and more effectively. But, the prior studies do not directly measure information processing efficiency. In today’s Research News article “Neurophysiological Effects of Meditation Based on Evoked and Event Related Potential Recordings”
Singh and colleagues review studies that have used the electrical signals from the brain to track how fast and effectively sensory information is processed in the brain during meditation. They report that the research indicates that indeed the brain processes this information more efficiently while engaged in meditation.
There were two different types of improvements reported with meditation. The first is simple processing on sensory events, sending the signals from the sensory organs to the cortex where complex processing occurs. They found that this simple level processing was improved during meditation.
The second type of processing is more complex and involves making decisions about the sensory information. This type of processing was also found to be improved in meditators. There was improved attention and switching of attention, greater perceptual clarity, lower automatic reactivity to the information and its emotional content, greater emotional acceptance, and lower anticipation and fear of pain. These results are remarkable and suggest that meditation increases the efficiency of the brain, improving the distribution of limited brain resources.
How can such a simple practice such as meditation have such profound effects upon the nervous system. In meditation, information processing is greatly simplified and focused. By reducing intrusions and the onslaught of complex sensory experiences, thoughts, implicit speech, and ruminations, meditation may allow the brain to focus on a reduced number of tasks and thus learn to process them simply and more efficiently.
It is also the case that the nervous system adapts to the kind of processing that it’s asked to do in a process called neuroplasticity. By reducing the complexity of processing the brain may improve and allocate its resources to focused tasks, improving its speed and effectiveness in processing them. Simply put, by making the world simpler, with fewer distraction or discursions the nervous system can better learn how to effectively make sense of what’s present.
So, meditate and make the brain better.
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies