Meditation: Can It Really Rewire Our Brains?

Take a deep breath. Can you feel that immediate sense of calm? Like a weight has been lifted off your shoulders, even if just for a second? If you’re watching this right now, there’s a huge chance that you’ve just sat down after a busy day, or perhaps you’re still in the middle of one. A day filled with writing emails, driving to the grocery store and walking the dog. 

In the midst of this routine, you might have had a fight with your partner, your parent, your boss or co-worker. Maybe you didn’t get that promotion you’ve been looking forward to, or the knee injury you’ve been nursing is acting up. Take another deep breath. Did you feel it this time? That sense of release. The knee doesn’t hurt so bad after all. That fight with your partner? It isn’t such a huge deal anymore. The promotion you didn’t get? You still have time to try again. Or perhaps, with a calm head, you could restrategize and find a new job. 

It’s miraculous what a single deep breath can do. How it can settle us. Our breath is not just a tool to live. It’s a tool to heal, to focus. Mastering breathing, and learning to use it to heal is meditation, and it just might have the power to rewire our brains.  Let’s keep breathing. 

To fully understand what meditation is, we have to go back 2600 years when Buddha taught meditative concentration as a key component of spiritual awakening. According to Buddha, when we meditate, we feel our heartbeat, we’re connected to our ancestors, to our loved ones, to the world that came before us. Knowing that none of our life, even the stressful parts, would be possible without it.  As we sink into our breath, our worries begin to wash away and we start to feel a connection to something deeper and greater than ourselves. Meditation is not about adhering to any rules. You don’t have to be a monk locked up in a monastery to apply this practice to your life. It’s just about breathing. 

For me, it can be simply taking 10 minutes a day to focus on my breath, to pull me away from the stress of life and the worries it comes with. For you, it might be a quick moment on the subway or in an Uber on your daily commute. For others, it could be a daily hour-long session, seated on a ceremonial pillow overlooking a vast beautiful landscape. All of it is meditation. No matter here we are or how long we close our eyes, we breathe for the same reasons. To relax, to ease the stress of daily living and perhaps to help answer some of life’s most challenging questions. How do I build better relationships? Who do I want to be five years from now? How do I live a happier life? 

Happiness. That sense of ease and contentment, like things are exactly as they should be. We know how hard it is to attain, but we still want it. When we’re young it seems so simple. A trip to the candy store, a new puppy, hugs from a sibling. But as adults, it feels like we're faced with a perpetual crisis, seemingly all around us. Insurmountable obstacles that are all-consuming. Things that make that argument with your partner or that tense email exchange all the more difficult to process. And it seems to be getting worse. Rumors of an impending recession, the great resignation, barely surviving a worldwide pandemic, it’s no wonder that global happiness fell by 10% between 2011 and 2021. 

In a world of crazy, what do we do? How do we get that feeling we got as kids in a candy store? Well, we need to turn inward. So go ahead, relax your shoulders, your face, your fingers. Feel your body grounded to the Earth beneath you. Feel that connection to the Universe around you. Realize that you have all the tools to reduce stress and anxiety. To lower your blood pressure and soothe that persistent pain. To increase self-awareness and compassion, both for yourself and for others. 

But how can all of this be possible just by breathing? Take another big breath. Another moment of letting go. You feel it in your body, now try to feel it in your mind. What’s happening inside us is called neuroplasticity – the gradual rewiring of our brains. Neuroplasticity is the ability of our neural pathways to change. You see, just like our bodies are malleable,  so are our brains. Like muscles in the rest of our body, the circuits of our brain that are reinforced and strengthened are those that we use the most. And those we don’t use as frequently will atrophy. 

The primary areas of modern scientific research in mindfulness are around improvements to focus and reduction of anxiety and depression. Most of the studies that have been performed to this effect use a tool called an fMRI which records brain activity. If you’ve ever had an MRI, it’s like that but with moving activity imaging instead of a still photo.

In one Yale University study using the fMRI technique, the brain’s default mode network was more active in experienced meditators. This network consists of the parts of our brain that are associated with cognitive control and self-monitoring, specifically the medial prefrontal cortex which sits right at the front of your head and posterior cingulate cortex located in the middle of your brain. 

This evidence points to the fact that when we meditate, it’s like exercising our default mode network so it’s ready to put in the work when the need arises. And the needs increase in number  every day.  It’s not just that one fight with our partner, but the infestation of doubts about our future with them. It’s not just one missed promotion, but the fear that we will never fulfill our goals or become what we’ve always dreamt of ourselves. We get anxious, we get depressed, we lose our motivation. But the more we breathe, the better we are at monitoring and controlling these feelings. So again I say, breathe. 

It’s so easy to think of all the ways in which we are failing. To let our heads run wild with thoughts of self-doubt and inadequacy. We convince ourselves that we’re not good enough, that we can’t solve the obstacles we are faced with. Instead of giving up, can we ground ourselves? Can we access that default mode network and improve our problem solving? Can we visualize the rewiring taking place to give us more self-awareness? That’s it. We’re doing it. Right now. Together. 

But our mind keeps wandering. We want to space out, to get preoccupied by anything other than this moment. Everyone tells us to stay present, but it’s hard. Especially when worry seeps in. So often, we tune out. We disengage. We subconsciously choose to not listen and notice the world and people around us. This is known as habituation. The tendency to stop paying attention to new information or stimulus. Do people have a hard time getting your attention? Do you feel a little desensitized to your surroundings? Breathe. Recenter your mind. Focus and feel the world around you. Think about the books on your shelf, the mug on your coffee table, your plant by the window.  Feel the air on your skin, the scents that fill your nostrils. Reacclimate to this moment. Be present. 

As you do this, distracting thoughts will try to pry their way into your mind. They will build and build until you feel debilitated, like you’re losing control. We want to fight this anxiety, these feelings of depression, but the more we try to fight it the stronger it becomes. We want to run from them, but we have nowhere to go. So, we continue to breathe. We continue to rewire. We use our body and our mind to increase connectivity between the amygdala, deep down near our brainstem, and the medial prefrontal cortex in front of our brain, to stabilize our emotions. To combat the inevitable stress, anxiety and depression that being a human being entails. 

In the 1970s, a Harvard Medical School professor named this the “relaxation response” as it works in direct opposition to the fight or flight response we feel when these worries keep popping up. For some , these feelings run deeper than just ruminating anxiety or mounting depression. It’s trauma that threatens to derail each and every moment of bliss we experience. You’re not alone in those feelings – 6% of the United States population will have PTSD at some point in their lives,. That’s about 12 million adults in a given year. And this is only a small portion of people who have experienced mind-altering trauma. The sad reality for these people is that there is no one-size-fits-all treatment. There is no proven regimen. Soldiers returning from war, victims of crimes, individuals with a traumatic childhood. 

Now, though, research is beginning to show that all of these millions of people could potentially benefit from mindfulness training. Both the National Institute of Health and the U.S. Department of Defense discovered that meditation is emerging as a promising means to deal with the effects of PTSD. And it all starts with that breath. The one we take that is more focused than the last, that is intentional, directed at something festering inside of us. 

We might wonder if something as simple as taking in oxygen could really be the key. Yes the breathing feels good at the moment, but is it really possible that these feelings are as scientifically rooted as some claim them to be? The sad reality is that the science on meditation is lacking because studying this practice isn’t just about the brain – it’s about something much more ephemeral. 

However, what we do know is how important oxygen is to the brain. Consider this. Our brains use about a fifth of our body’s total oxygen supply to send messages and nerve signals to other parts of our body. If the brain doesn’t get oxygen, within just five minutes, its cells will begin to die. With this, we can see just how important breathing intentionally is. So where does that leave us? Are we practitioners or are we skeptics? Or can we be both? 

The lack of accessibility to basic healthcare is a widespread global crisis and half of the world is without essential health services. For those without access, or for anyone else like me who is simply curious about its effects, we should be able to find peace in the information that is available, although limited at this time. Today, meditation is a multi-billion dollar industry. Everywhere you turn people are trying to sell you special mats, get you to sign up for their classes, pay for their membership services, visit their brick and mortar stores for coaching. Headspace, one of the most popular meditation apps out there thanks in part to its animated Netflix series, has been downloaded 65 million times. Its parent company, Headspace Health, is worth an estimated $3 billion and has partnered with more than 2,000 companies to provide the app free to their employees. And that’s only one of the multitude of options that are available out there.

It can be overwhelming, can’t it? We find ourselves in the paradox of choice – having so many options that instead of facilitating our quest for happiness and relaxation, we feel stressed all over again trying to pick one. Or even worse, we feel like that peace and calm we seek is hidden behind a paywall. When in reality, it isn’t. But wait. We’ve gone down a rabbit hole. We’ve found a way to make the simple task of breathing stressful, we were almost sucked in again. But let’s pause. 

Forget about all of that and let’s just remember to breathe. Let’s channel our breath to the tension in our neck, to the thoughts racing through our mind, to lighting up the parts of our brain that can help regulate the stress we’re feeling. We notice our room, our body, the world around us. We ground ourselves again. We breathe. Because breathing is not just freeing. It’s free.