Opinions, Column

This Is Your Brain on Meditation

Last semester, my roommate had a very odd assignment for her senior seminar class. The assignment required students to venture out to a secluded area, say a park or field, and sit for three hours.

The most unexpected part? That was all you could do—just sit. No phone, no music, no speaking, and no journaling. It was supposed to be just you and your thoughts spending time completely alone for three hours. 

She said it was the best thing she’s ever done.

I was incredibly intrigued by her experience. It’s crazy to picture where your mind might wander when you have three hours without any stimulation. Considering that ever-attention-grabbing TikToks last an average of around 20 seconds, spending three hours without any media feels daunting.

I imagine the first hour or so would be spent thinking about mundane things, like maybe an upcoming test or a strained relationship. But what happens when you run out of these topics? What happens to your thoughts then? 

It’s hard to say. You don’t know what you don’t know. 

I know the human mind is incredible, but the way my roommate described this experience was almost unfathomable. As she explained feeling like new parts of her brain had been accessed, I couldn’t help thinking it sounded like a hallucinogenic experience with LSD 

But as it turns out, our minds are capable of so much on their own when there are no prompts or external stimuli. That is, if we give them the space—and time—to do so.  

Although there are a wide range of definitions for meditation, my roommate’s assignment can fit into any of the classifications. Meditation is a practice generally intended to calm the mind and completely enhance your awareness of yourself, your mind, and your environment. 

All too often we look to external sources to soothe and calm ourselves when the best, healthiest answers are actually built into our own brains. And although drugs may achieve similar effects for opening up the mind, they are a shortcut and completely ignore humans’ innate ability to achieve this heightened state of brain functioning. 

Recent research shows that the very structure of our brains change following repeated meditation. For instance, the prefrontal cortex, which generally regulates our personality, and the hippocampus, which is involved in memory, both show increased activity following long-term bouts of meditation.

Our brains are a tool, and meditation offers a way to sharpen that tool to better help us navigate our lives. Regularly performing meditation, even if you don’t take a full three hours, helps us manage unexpected problems and react with increased thoughtfulness and calm. 

These behavioral abilities are attributed to the effect of meditation on the amygdala. The amygdala—responsible for the body’s fight or flight response—shows a decrease in activity following meditation, meaning that instead of inducing a stress response upon encountering an unexpected event, your body is able to deal with the event internally, and often more calmly.  

And meditation is certainly not new. Eastern Buddhists have been practicing meditation for centuries, and there is a record of meditation practices in ancient China and Egypt. Western populations rejected meditation until the practice went mainstream through promotion by people like the Beatles. Now, Western science is catching up to this ancient knowledge by studying the aforementioned effects of meditation on brain structures.  

Needless to say, I’ve been dying to try my roommate’s meditation assignment. Couple her testimony with the long history of positive effects of meditation and the new scientific studies of meditation, and you have quite an enticing advertisement. 

Unfortunately, the Boston weather has precluded me from doing so for the past few months. But now, as it starts to warm up, I’ll be MIA intermittently throughout the week. I’ll be escaping into my own mind. I honestly cannot wait to see where it takes me—although I hope it’s not too far (apparently professors still take attendance even if it’s your senior year).

April 19, 2023