Table of Contents
- 🧘♀️ What is Meditation?
- 🧠 The Neuroscience of Meditation
- 😌 Three Key Components of Meditation
- 🙏 How to Meditate
- ❤️ Benefits of Meditation
🧘♀️ What is Meditation?
Meditation involves a wide range of different practices.
For example, it can be done sitting down with our eyes closed in the lotus position (🧘♀️), using visualisation techniques that cultivate an sense of inner calm, or even when walking (by focusing our attention on the physical sensation of our movements).
Regardless of the specific form it takes, meditation can be a powerful tool for our mental and physical health.
In fact, there are thousands of scientific studies showing the benefits of meditation for enhancing sleep, improving focus, reducing inflammation, improving mood, reducing stress, and more.
So, let’s explore how meditation changes what’s going on inside the brain.
🧠 The Neuroscience of Meditation
When we meditate, there are three areas of the brain that have been found to play particularly important roles:
- Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) – The DLPFC is located just behind the forehead and from numerous studies we’ve found that it has an incredible ability to control and make sense of what’s going on with us emotionally. For example, it plays a crucial role in cognitive control, or the ability to regulate thoughts and behaviors in the face of distractions or competing demands.
- Anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) – The DLPFC is in direct communication with the ACC, which is involved in emotion regulation and the monitoring of internal states. For example, it monitors how fast we breathe, whether our heart is beating too fast or slow, and whether the heart is beating at the correct speed depending on the context we are in e.g. we’d expect our heart to beat fast when running up a hill, but not if we’re just sitting on a bench.
- Insula – like the ACC, this is also involved in interpreting signals of what’s going on in our brain and body. But, it’s also responsible for interpreting information about what’s going on outside of us. For example, if we see we’re about to run up a steep hill, the insula will recognising that we shouldn’t be worried if our heart rate increases as we start climbing that hill.
So these three areas of our brain work together in a neural conversation trying to figure out how we feel and whether those feelings make sense for the situation we’re in.
It also interprets those feelings with the context of our past memories, our awareness of the present, and our anticipation of the future. So, if we’re sat eating our dinner and feel stressed thinking about an exam we’ve got tomorrow, that may not be the optimal way to feel at that moment, but it can still make sense to us because that exam is important.
😌 Three Key Components of Meditation
When we meditate, there are 3 key components that we need to be aware of to maximise the neurological / braind-enhancing effects (and allow the areas of the brain outlined above to communicate in the best possible way for us):
- Our perception
- Our pattern of breathing
- The dissociation continuum
1 Our Perception
We sense things in and on our body all the time. We also sense things outside of us all the time (sights, sounds, touches, etc.). This is what we talked about in the section on ‘the neuroscience of meditation’ above.
But, ‘sensation’ is different to ‘perception’.
In short, perceptions are the sensation that we’re paying attention to. So, at any given moment, we’ll be sensing many things (e.g. sound from the TV, pressure receptors that sense we’re sat down, smells from the kitchen, etc.), but we’re not perceiving these things until we pay attention to them.
The Perception Spotlight
We can’t perceive all these sensations at the same time as that would be incredibly overwhelming. So, instead, we have spotlights of perception, where we focus in on one sensation at a time.
For example, you can focus your attention on your thumb or you can broaden the spotlight to include your whole hand.
In fact, research shows that it’s incredibly difficult to split our attention on more than two things. So, we can easily focus on a tree or an entire landscape that’s in front of us (i.e. one perceptual spotlight). It’s also pretty easy to focus on how warm we feel and listen to the TV (i.e. two perceptual spotlights). But, it’s hard – although not impossible – to have three perceptual spotlights.
It’s also true that the perceptual spotlight can be very broad or very narrow. So, we register fine changes in detail like a strange tingle on one side of our big toe or we can just think about the entire foot more broadly.
Ultimately, we can do all of this because of those areas in our brain that can dial up/down the attention to specific things in our environment or in our body.
Interoception vs Exteroception
Within the word ‘perception’ there’s a continuum, with interoception and exteroception on either end:
- Interoception – everything that we sense at the level of our skin and inward e.g.the sensation inside our stomach, the sensation of our heart beating, how hot or cold we feel, etc.
- Exteroception – everything that we perceive outside or beyond the confines of our skin.
So, when we sit down to meditate with our eyes closed (which is the most popular form of meditation) we’re shutting down a major avenue of sensory input (vision), which means our perceptual spotlight shifts to interoception (i.e. to what’s happning at the level of our skin and inside our bodies).
As a result, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the insula ramp up their levels of neural activity. In other words, we become very aware of what’s happening to the various sensations inside our body.
This isn’t to say we can’t be distracted by external events (because that’s clearly not true), but the early stages of transitioning into a meditative state involve this shifting along the continuum to interoception.
Is Interoception or Exteroception Better?
Both interoception and exteroception can be useful when it comes to meditation, so neither is necessarily ‘better’ than the other.
For example, while heightened levels of interoceptive awareness may sound attractive, it isn’t always beneficial. For instance, many people have excessive levels of anxiety because they’re very aware of their internal state when speaking to people. In other words, their high levels of interoceptive awareness make them think about how they feel, which distracts them from being able to communicate their ideas effectively.
But, having no interoceptive awareness isn’t great either. If we just ignore the fact that we’re having chest pains or our blood pressure is increasing, then we’ll struggle to detect and respond to health issues.
So, when it comes to choosing what meditation practice to do, we have a choice to do one that involves greater interoceptive awareness of greater exteroceptive awareness.
We can decide which to focus on by asking ourself a question: am I someone who’s very aware of my bodily sensations or not? The less aware you are of your bodily sensations, the more beneficial interoceptive meditation will be for you.
We’ll explore what these meditation practices look like later.
2 Our Pattern of Breathing
Breathwork has grown in popularity over the last few years, especially following the rise of Wim Hof since 2015.
I’ve created an ultimate guide to breathing that goes into a lot more detail about the health and performance benefits of breathing, so feel free to check that out.
When it comes to meditation, though, most people recommend slowing our rate of breathing. And this can be in the form of cyclic breathing (inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale…), double-inhales (inhale, inhale, exhale…), or box-breathing (inhale, hold, exhale, hold…) where the inhale, hold, and exhale are of equal duration.
By being deliberate about the cadence of our breathing, we’re forcing ourselves into interoception.
The reason for this is because if we want to create a specific cadence of breathing we need to have deliberate control over the muscles inside of us. In other words, we need to focus on what’s happening inside our body, so breathwork means some portion of our perception shifts to interoception.
How to breathe during meditation?
There’s no one answer here and it depends on what you’re trying to achieve.
The main point is that the more deliberate and unnatural the pattern of breathing you choose to do during the practice the greater your interoceptive awareness will be. So, if you’re someone who is already very interoceptively aware (i.e. caught up in your own head) then it probably makes more sense to adopt a relatively normal pattern of breathing (e.g. cyclic breathing).
The only other thing to keep in mind is what you want to achieve from the meditation, by asking yourself this question: do I want to be more relaxed or more alert after meditating? The way we control this is through how we’re breathing.
You can read more about this here, but the short summary is as follows:
- Breathing for relaxation – if our exhales are longer and or more vigorous than our inhales, then we’ll shift our brain and body towards a state of more alertness.
- Breathing for alertness – if our inhales are longer and or more vigorous than our exhales, then we’ll shift our brain and body towards a state of more alertness.
3 Interoception vs Dissociation
There’s also a continuum between interoception and dissociation (also known as dissasociation):
- Interoception – if we’re very interoceptively aware, then we’re acutely aware of what’s happening at the surface of our skin and inward.
- Dissociation – if we’re dissociated, we have a complate lack of bodily awareness. This is often something that victims of trauma report, where they shut off their emotions and just go through the motions.
Ultimately, the best place to sit on the continuum between interoception and dissociation is somewhere in the middle – we don’t want to be too dissociated from life’s experiences but we also don’t want everything in the world to have huge effects on our internal state (like our heart rate and breathing rate).
So any meditation practice we choose should help us to find the correct balance.
🙏 How to Meditate
We want to meditate using a practice in which we work against our default state.
This means if we’re more interceptively dominant (i.e. very internally aware) then focus on meditation practices that are more exteroceptive. And if we’re more exteroceptively dominant (i.e. very externally aware) then focus on meditation practices that are more interoceptive.
For example, if we’re in a crowded airport and find that everything’s very distracting, that would be a great time to do some interoceptive practice. Whereas if we’re in your head obsessing over a thought, that would be a great time to do some exteroceptive meditation.
In both cases, we’re pushing against your default mode.
To meditate interoceptively, we can intentionally shift our focus inward and cultivate awareness of our internal sensations and bodily experiences. This practice allows us to connect with our physical and emotional states, bringing attention to sensations like heartbeat, breath, muscle tension, and subtle bodily sensations.
To begin interoceptive meditation, find a quiet and comfortable space where you can sit or lie down. Close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath, observing the natural rhythm of inhalation and exhalation. As you settle into the practice, gently redirect your awareness to the sensations within your body.
Notice any areas of tension, warmth, coolness, or discomfort. Without judgment or attachment, simply observe these sensations as they arise and pass away. Gradually expand your awareness to encompass your entire body, scanning for any sensations or shifts in energy.
If distracting thoughts arise, gently acknowledge them and return your focus to the sensations within your body. Allow yourself to fully experience each sensation without trying to change or analyse it. This practice encourages us to develop a deeper connection with our physical and emotional states, fostering self-awareness and promoting a sense of groundedness.
To meditate exteroceptively, we shift our focus outward, directing our attention to the external environment and the sensory experiences it offers. This practice involves observing and engaging with the sights, sounds, smells, and textures present in our surroundings.
To begin exteroceptive meditation, find a quiet and comfortable space where you can sit or stand with an open posture. Start by taking a few deep breaths to center yourself in the present moment. With eyes open, gently gaze at your surroundings without fixating on any particular object.
Allow your attention to expand, taking in the visual details of your environment. Notice the play of light and shadows, colors, and shapes. Tune in to the sounds around you, embracing both the nearby and distant noises. Engage your sense of smell, identifying any aromas that may be present. If appropriate, explore the textures or sensations on surfaces you can touch.
As you engage with the external stimuli, remain mindful and fully present in the moment. Avoid getting caught up in mental narratives or judgments about what you perceive. Instead, strive to maintain an attitude of curiosity and open receptivity.
If distracting thoughts arise, gently acknowledge them and redirect your focus back to the sensory experiences in your environment. Embrace each moment as it unfolds, allowing yourself to fully immerse in the present external reality.
How Long Should you Meditate For?
Tesearch done by Dr Wendy Suzuki (from New York University) found that 13 minutes of daily meditation is enough to substantially improve your attention, cognitive performance, mood and memory.
But, if you’re just getting started, doing interoceptive or exteroceptive meditation for just 3 minutes a day is enough.
The key is to be consistent.
❤️ Benefits of Meditation
We’ve touched upon some of the benefits of meditation above, but there are 4 key areas that I find to particularly benefit from a consistent meditation practice:
A fascinating study from Japan tested the focus of people with varying levels of meditation ability. They had some people who’d never meditated before and some people who’d meditates for hundreds or thousands of hours across their lifetime.
They then got these people to listen to the same tone 20 times. Using brain imaging, they found that the expert meditators could easily focus on all 20 tones, but the non-meditators often lost focus after the 10th or 11th tone.
In fact, the findings were slightly more nuanced than that. The expert meditators were actually just incredibly good at re-focusing their mind. So, if their brain began to wander they could very easily re-engage with the task at hand. Whereas the non-meditators lost focus and never regained focus afterwards.
One of the reasons why developing focus is so important was nicely summarised in the paper ‘A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind’.
Basically, this study tracked over 2200+ adults and messaged them randomly throughout the day to ask what they were doing and how they were feeling at any given moment. So, they were looking for a match or mismatch between what people were doing and how people were feelings.
And the important point that came from the data was: people were less happy when their mind was wandering compared to when their mind was focused on a task (regardless of what that task is). In other words, having an increased level of focus and being engaged in what you’re doing is an essential ingredient of day-to-day happiness.
2 Emotional Control
Meditation can be a powerful tool for enhancing emotional control and regulation. Through regular practice, meditation cultivates mindfulness, which involves non-judgmental awareness and acceptance of our present moment experiences, including our emotions.
By observing our thoughts and emotions during meditation, we develop a greater understanding of their transient nature and learn to detach ourselves from their immediate influence. This heightened awareness allows us to recognize the arising of emotions without being overwhelmed or reactive to them.
Through meditation, we develop the capacity to observe our emotions with equanimity, creating a space between the emotion and our response. We can observe the physical sensations associated with emotions in our bodies and acknowledge their presence without immediately acting on them.
As we continue to cultivate this ability to observe and be present with our emotions, we develop greater emotional resilience and control. We become less entangled in the stories and narratives that often accompany our emotional experiences, enabling us to respond to situations with greater clarity, wisdom, and compassion.
3 Alleviating Depression
Meditation has shown promise in alleviating depression, offering a potential alternative or complementary approach to traditional pharmaceutical treatments. Several studies have provided evidence supporting the positive impact of meditation, specifically mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), on individuals with depression.
One study conducted by cognitive psychologist John Teasdale at Oxford University in 2000 demonstrated that MBCT helped prevent depression. And another study conducted by Mark Williams at Oxford University in 2014 compared MBCT to cognitive therapy and pharmaceutical treatment. Results indicated that MBCT was particularly effective in cases where depression stemmed from childhood traumas. In other types of depression, MBCT was equally effective as medication.
Further research by Alberto Chiesa at the University of Bologna in 2015 supported the benefits of MBCT for patients who did not respond to medication alone. And cognitive psychologist Zindel Segal, also from Oxford, used fMRI scans to demonstrate that MBCT strengthened the insula of depressed patients, helping them to gain perspective and reduce the overwhelming feelings often associated with their thoughts and emotions.
In a remarkable study conducted in 2002, Tibetan monk Mingyur Rinpoche’s brain activity was measured during compassion meditation (i.e. focusing on feelings of compassion to loved ones and every living thing in the universe), providing profound insights into the effects of meditation on compassion.
Using an electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure brain waves, researchers observed that Rinpoche’s brain waves spiked to unusually high levels during intervals of compassion meditation, remaining consistently elevated throughout the session. These spikes, typically seen when sensors are accidentally triggered, occurred intentionally and without physical movement. When compared to periods of rest, the spikes only slightly decreased, highlighting the sustained impact of compassion meditation on neural activity.
These findings provide remarkable evidence of the power of compassion meditation to modulate and enhance neural activity related to empathy.