You’ve read about the benefits of a daily practice. But what exactly is happening inside your body to produce these profound effects? Thanks to research done using fMRI scans of the brain, we know. Here, Rebecca Gladding, MD, a psychiatrist and co-author of You Are Not Your Brain, sheds some light on what’s going on in your gray matter when you meditate.
In the first few minutes of meditation, your ventromedial prefrontal cortex lights up. When you start to meditate, your brain jumps from one thought to the next. One of the reasons for this “monkey mind” is that this part of the brain is always active—unless we learn how to activate other areas (which is what a regular meditation practice does). “Interestingly, this part of the brain runs everything through a lens of ‘me,’” Gladding says. And it can prompt you to catastrophize. You might remember something you said at work and then think, “I’m going to get fired,” she says. Or, rather than brushing off a pain in your hip, you might jump to the (unlikely) possibility that you need a hip replacement.
Once you start to focus your attention, your lateral prefrontal cortex lights up. Whether that focused attention is on your breath, a mantra, your footsteps, chakras, or a soothing voice guiding your meditation, your lateral prefrontal cortex activates—and overrides the “me” thoughts in favor of a more rational, logical, balanced position. “This part of the brain helps you see things neutrally,” Gladding says. Which helps you settle into your meditation. Even better, the more you meditate, the more active your lateral prefrontal cortex becomes—and the quieter your ventromedial cortex (the “me” center that has a tendency to catastrophize) gets.
After 8 to 12 weeks of meditating daily, your dorsomedial prefrontal cortex gets activated. This is a part of the brain that helps us develop empathy. “It’s why the more we meditate, the more compassionate we become in life,” says Gladding. “This part of the brain becomes more active, more of the time.