Meditation Changes Your Brain for the Better, Even if You're Not a Monk
The best way to benefit from meditation is to start small — really small. Dr. Suzuki explains how short bursts of meditation can change the biology of your brain for the better, making you healthier and more purpose driven.
Dr. Wendy A. Suzuki is a Professor of Neural Science and Psychology in the Center for Neural Science at New York University. She received her undergraduate degree in Physiology and Human Anatomy at the University of California, Berkeley in 1987, studying with Prof. Marion C. Diamond, a leader in the field of brain plasticity. She went on to earn her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from U.C. San Diego in 1993 and completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health before accepting her faculty position at New York University in 1998. Dr. Suzuki is author of the book Healthy Brain, Happy Life: A Personal Program to Activate Your Brain and Do Everything Better.
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.
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.
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.
- The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
- The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
- It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
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