Mind exercise: train your brain like your body

Mind and body

Mind exercise: train your brain like your body

In this week's Writer's Corner, Ollie tells us more about the effects of meditation. Based in Austria, Ollie has plenty of opinions about thinking and feeling better…

Human athleticism has made leaps and bounds in the last century. It took Eliud Kipchoge just over 2 hours to smash the marathon world record. Usain Bolt is the fastest human ever to run 100m, clocking an impressive 9.58 seconds that stunned the world. After years of dedication and gruelling training, the bodies of professional athletes show incredible signs of adaptation and performance enhancement.

Athletes all over the world shape and maximise the efficiency of their bodies. Tour De France riders have such efficient cardiovascular systems that their resting heart rates beat around 40 times per minute. Most of us average 70 bpm.

With science starting to gain insight into the effects of long-term meditation on the brain, can similar levels of adaptation be seen in dedicated practitioners?

Long-term meditators and adaptation

Take the EEG readings of gamma waves in long-term meditators who have spent between 10,000 and 50,000 lifetime hours meditating. Usually, gamma occurs during brief moments when differing brain regions fire in harmony. When biting a ripe, juicy peach, the brain meshes sight, smells, taste, feel, and sound into a single experience. When compared to a control group, experienced meditators had twenty-five times greater gamma oscillations at rest. No brain lab had ever seen results like this - gamma oscillations that persist for minutes rather than split seconds.

Or take the tests and scans of a seasoned monk who has dedicated his entire life to meditation. When meditating to cultivate compassion, an EEG showed a massive surge in electrical activity in his brain, and an fMRI scan revealed his brain circuitry for empathy skyrocketed by 700-800% compared to its level at rest.

These are just a couple of examples of long-term meditation studies. We still have a lot to learn and discover. But studies like these highlight similar parallels to the results of professional athletes - dedication pays off.

The difference between state and trait changes

Just like building muscle or losing fat, consistently showing up and exercising correctly is key to making lasting changes. It’s the same with meditation. Continued practice is key to transforming a state into a trait.

A change in state is the fleeting feeling after meditation. Perhaps you feel less stressed or more relaxed after a mindfulness session. But a change in trait literally alters your personality and way of being. You’re happier, kinder, or more focused in general, rather than just after a session.

Luckily for us, trait changes can be studied by the brain systems involved. There are four main neural pathways meditation transforms:

  • Reacting to disturbing events. This includes stress and our recovery from it.

  • Compassion and empathy.

  • Circuitry for attention.

  • Our awareness of our sense of self.

Reframing our motivation

To build these traits, we have to train our minds correctly. To cultivate attention, we have to practice. The same applies to the other traits. Parallels can be drawn to sport and exercise - a marathon runner would not train endurance by throwing a javelin.

An athlete trains, with complete dedication, to prepare their mind and body for maximum performance. Perhaps if we view meditation like an athlete training, our experience of the world will get richer, deeper and much more peaceful.

Ollie is just one of our talented writers here at Coster Content. We believe in letting our talent shine and write about their passions. Look out for more Writer's Corner every Friday. If you want to utilise our in-house talent for your blog or website, get in touch on 0161 413 8418.

Alia Coster