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how meditation changes the brain meditation for mental health meditation  brain benefits meditation effects on brain  neuroscience of meditation

How meditation changes the brain: Adopting meditation for mental health

Published May 19, 2023 | Updated Feb 8, 2024

Picture yourself on a serene beach, with the soothing sounds of gentle waves and the feeling of a cool breeze blowing. You are seated comfortably with your eyes closed, living in the moment, breathing easy and stress free. Does that sound like a mind spa? Regardless of wherever you are, you can mentally transport yourself to a tropical heaven through the practice of meditation. Meditation is defined as “a mental practice aiming to improve the psychological capacity of self-regulation regarding attention, awareness, and emotion.” [1]

Neuroscience of meditation: what happens in your meditating brain?

There are many forms of meditation. Brain benefits include change in the structure and connectivity of different brain areas. Most forms of meditation help rest the brain’s default mode network, which is responsible for mind-wandering and overthinking about self and others [2]. Meditation increases the activity and strengthens brain areas involved in emotional regulation and focused attention [2] [3]. In fact, regular meditators have thicker brain structures and higher volume of brain matter that connect different areas of the brain [3].

Your brain communicates through electrical activity, much like your electronic devices where electrical signals turn your devices on/off. The brain is more sophisticated and has different types of electrical activity, also called brain waves. Change in this electrical activity is one of the meditation effects on brain waves. Meditation increases the activity of 2 types of brain waves [4]:

  • Alpha waves: Brain waves seen when your brain is most relaxed and recharging.
  • Theta waves: Brain waves seen when your brain is relaxed, awake and focused on self; free from outside distractions.

Research has found that meditation can bring many benefits such as stress relief, increased attention, and better sleep. 

Meditate for stress relief.

Stressed at work? Need a quick fix? Find a quiet place and meditate for 8 minutes. Watch all the stress evaporate and zen spread through you. Now you are ready to tackle your workday. This is what a study among medical students demonstrated. Those who performed 5-12 minutes of meditation, 6 days a week, for 8 weeks reported lower stress and anxiety and improved mindfulness [5]. A review of 45 studies investigating the de-stressing effects of meditation found that it brings calm by lowering your stress hormone, cortisol and your blood pressure [6]. 

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a specific type of meditation developed by medical professor Jon Kabat-Zinn that is aimed at self-regulation of emotions and stress reduction. It has been consistently shown to reduce stress levels, by reducing overthinking and anxiousness [7] and can be learnt through a 2.5hrs/week, 8 weeks course here. 

Meditate for focused attention. 

If you find yourself constantly distracted from work that requires your focus, take meditation breaks. This works even if you are inexperienced. Inexperienced meditators had 13-minute guided sessions daily for 8 weeks. They reported an increase in attention and memory scores [9]. When you meditate, you undergo an exercise in attention, where you must consciously focus on self and be present in the moment. This helps train your brain to avoid distractions. Meditation can improve attention by increasing blood flow to the brain. It improves efficiency in the attention area of the brain, by increased connections in that area [8]. Decrease in the activity of the default mode network also helps reduce distractions, thereby increasing attention in important tasks. 

Mediate for a restful sleep.

If you want to fall asleep faster and improve your sleep quality, adding meditation to your bedtime routine can work wonders. A review of 6 high quality studies found that meditation can help reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep and improve sleep quality [10]. Sleep issues are common among older adults. Older adults who meditated reported sleep quality equivalent to younger counterparts due to increased alpha and theta waves [12]. There are many clear reasons why meditation is helpful for restful sleep including improved breathing, removal of distractions by focusing on self and reduction in stress levels [11]. Meditation is also a good tool for those who struggle with sleep issues due to overthinking at bedtime. 

How to meditate?

Here is a 5-minute  guided meditation follow along with Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of MBSR, that can help you start meditating for better mindset and a well rested brain. 


  1. Brandmeyer, T., Delorme, A., & Wahbeh, H. (2019). The neuroscience of meditation: classification, phenomenology, correlates, and mechanisms. Progress in brain research244, 1–29.
  2. Lee, D. J., Kulubya, E., Goldin, P., Goodarzi, A., & Girgis, F. (2018). Review of the Neural Oscillations Underlying Meditation. Frontiers in neuroscience12, 178. 
  3. Boccia, M., Piccardi, L., & Guariglia, P. (2015). The Meditative Mind: A Comprehensive Meta-Analysis of MRI Studies. BioMed research international2015, 419808.
  4. Lagopoulos, J., Xu, J., Rasmussen, I., Vik, A., Malhi, G.S., Eliassen, C.F., Arntsen, I.E., Saether, J.G., Hollup, S., Holen, A., Davanger, S. and Ellingsen, Ø. (2009). Increased theta and alpha EEG activity during nondirective meditation. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (New York, N.Y.), [online] 15(11), pp.1187–1192.
  5. Burgstahler, M. S., & Stenson, M. C. (2020). Effects of guided mindfulness meditation on anxiety and stress in a pre-healthcare college student population: a pilot study. Journal of American college health : J of ACH68(6), 666–672.
  6. Pascoe, M. C., Thompson, D. R., Jenkins, Z. M., & Ski, C. F. (2017). Mindfulness mediates the physiological markers of stress: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of psychiatric research95, 156–178.
  7. Chiesa, A., & Serretti, A. (2009). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for stress management in healthy people: a review and meta-analysis. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.)15(5), 593–600.
  8. Sharma H. (2015). Meditation: Process and effects. Ayu36(3), 233–237. 
  9. Basso, J. C., McHale, A., Ende, V., Oberlin, D. J., & Suzuki, W. A. (2019). Brief, daily meditation enhances attention, memory, mood, and emotional regulation in non-experienced meditators. Behavioural brain research356, 208–220.
  10. Gong, H., Ni, C. X., Liu, Y. Z., Zhang, Y., Su, W. J., Lian, Y. J., Peng, W., & Jiang, C. L. (2016). Mindfulness meditation for insomnia: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Journal of psychosomatic research89, 1–6.
  11. Summer, J. (2022). Meditation and Sleep. [online] Sleep Foundation.
  12. Nagendra, R. P., Maruthai, N., & Kutty, B. M. (2012). Meditation and its regulatory role on sleep. Frontiers in neurology3, 54.


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