Meditation calms the part of the brain associated with anxiety

Some years ago, neuroscientists performed a study that confirmed some of meditation’s most powerful benefits.

They hooked two groups of people up to an MRI machine and applied heat to their forearm. The first group were people who had never meditated before or only a few times. The second group were expert meditators who had meditated at least 10,000 hours in their lives.

They exposed each participant to the heat, which was painful but not hot enough to burn the skin. Then they told them that a “beep” indicates that 10 seconds later the heat would be applied again.

With the beep, the people who hadn’t meditated acted as if the heat had already started. The part of the brain associated with fear and anxiety — the amygdala — fired up. The brains of the expert meditators, however, stayed calm, as if nothing was about to happen.

After the heat ended, the expert meditators returned to normal, resting brain activity quickly, while the others continued experiencing discomfort and anxiety.

The takeaway: meditation strengthens our ability to stay present rather than worry about the future or ruminate about the past.

But that’s not the biggest finding.

Get this. Not only did expert meditators avoid anxiety but they also felt the pain more vividly. They had more activity in the parts of their brain related to “saliency,” or focus, while feeling the heat.

It’s a myth that meditation turns you into a cold, calculating robot. Mindfulness turns up the dial on intimacy — with other people, being in nature, eating food, all of our experience.

Yes, there’s plenty of pain in life, but there’s pleasure too. And it’s a win-win. The more you face pain directly rather than agonize over it, ignore it, numb it, etc., the more you learn and grow.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering isn’t.

Want to be more mindful?

I’ve come up with a cheat sheet that will help you start and stick with a daily meditation practice. Get it for free here.

Listen to the podcast version

I talked about this post on my podcast, Meditation for the 99%. Listen to it on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and everywhere podcasts are available. Stream this episode below.