You don’t have to become a monk to learn from one, says Dr. Wendy Suzuki, professor of neural science and psychology at New York University. Research into how meditation affects the brain is conclusive: Meditating immediately changes the frequency of your brain waves and, after five years, increases the size of white matter bundles in the prefrontal cortex.
But Suzuki’s best advice is to start small. In her book, Healthy Brain, Happy Life: A Personal Program to Activate Your Brain and Do Everything Better, she explains that 20 minutes of daily meditation was too large a commitment. So instead of reordering your life, she recommends practicing basic mindfulness exercises like concentrating on your breathing patterns. This technique will help you build your meditation muscle, and start you down a more peaceful and purposeful path.
Keep an ear out for Dr. Suzuki on Think Again, a Big Think podcast that takes guests out of their comfort zone and has been called “truly spontaneous.” For the upcoming July 4th episode, Suzuki discusses what motivates our behaviors, good and bad, and how it’s easier than ever to give into what she calls “positive temptations.” So if you leave feeling tempted to meditate — go on, give in.
Wendy Suzuki: We know a lot about or are growing our knowledge about the effects of meditation, long-term meditation in people like monks that meditate for 50,000 hours in their lifetime. And we know that this completely changes the electrophysiological responses of their brains. They have much higher levels of what we call gamma waves, which is a particular frequency of wave. Not only that but even their resting baseline — even when they’re not meditating they’re brainwaves are more like meditation, the meditation kind of brainwaves than novice people that don’t have any experience meditating. So it really changes both the baseline level of physiological activity as well as the response when you’re asked to actually meditate.
There are kind of two categories of studies that have been done on meditation. One on these lifelong meditators, the monks, and the other category of studies on people like you and me that started out with no meditation experience and started to meditate. And those perhaps are more relevant studies for most people. And those studies have shown significant improvements in attention functions with increased exercise. And also actual anatomical changes in the brain with perhaps a little bit more experience with meditation, maybe five years of meditation experience increased the size of white matter bundles in the prefrontal cortex. So there are, you know, substantial, physiological, anatomical changes that have been shown with meditation and there’s also effects on depressive symptoms. So decreases of depressive symptoms, decreases in stress symptoms. So meditation is doing lots of positive things. And some very, very similar to exercise and some slightly different. So I think there’s definitely going to be a difference, but there’s overlapping positive functions that exercise and meditation have on your general brain health.
How do you get to be a regular meditator and the answer is, I think, start very, very small. I know, for myself, I have a subchapter in my book called Confessions of a Yo-yo Meditator because I think I have tried all different kinds of meditation. And my big mistake early on was to try and meditate for too long at a sitting. So I would try to meditate for 20-25 minutes with no meditation experience. And it was a disaster. I forced myself to do it for 30 days thinking that that would be it and I would form my habit. And day 31 I took a little break and I never came back. But then when I came back again starting very, very small with things that, you know, I could just do on my own — just breathing meditation. Focusing on the breath. Something that we all do at the end of yoga classes. That’s what really kind of helped me build my muscle. And I just had to stick with that very short meditation and build it up that way. And I think people too often either start too long or don’t stick with it enough. But again, shorter is better and I think that’s a key for people that want to start to meditate.