How Meditation Reshapes Your Brain

Written by Max Miller on BIG THINK.

In 2006, filmmaker David Lynch—a poet of the sublimely bizarre and the surreally normal—wrote a book on transcendental meditation. Describing his experience, he writes: "It takes you to an ocean of pure consciousness, pure knowingness. But it's familiar; it's you. And right away a sense of happiness emerges—not a goofball happiness, but a thick beauty."

Coming from the man behind disturbing mindbenders like "Eraserhead" and "Blue Velvet," it's hard to take this statement seriously. But Lynch is indeed being sincere; he has reportedly meditated for 20 minutes twice a day since the 1970s. And his belief in the power of this age-old practice is shared with an estimated 20 million people in the United States alone who engage some form of meditation.

Sharon Gannon, the co-founder of Jivamukti Yoga, the largest yoga center in the U.S., tells Big Think that meditation is all about ignoring stimuli. "We're so habituated to reacting to every stimulus," she says. If the phone rings, we answer it; if someone knocks at the door, we open it. But meditation is a space where we don't react to the stimuli that constantly bombard us; it is about letting go, and it paradoxically makes us better able to engage. "Without taking the time every day to let things come and let things go without acting upon it, you won't have clarity of mind," she says.

But what is actually happening in the brain as we seek nirvana? Meditators have long described their experiences as transformative states that are markedly different from normal consciousness, but only recently have researchers found the evidence to back this up.

Richard Davidson is one of the foremost researchers of meditation's effects on the brain. A Harvard Ph.D graduate and a friend of the Dalai Lama, he was chided early in his career for wanting to study something as unscientific as meditation. But in 2004 he became an overnight scientific celebrity for discovering that Buddhist monks exhibit vastly different brainwaves during meditation than normal people. Brainwaves are produced as the billions of neurons in our brains transmit action potentials down their axons to the synapses where they trigger the release of neurotransmitters. These action potentials are essentially electrical charges that are passed from neuron to neuron. By placing sensors on the scalp, researchers can detect not the individual firings of neurons—they are far too small and numerous to differentiate—but the sum total of this electrical activity, dubbed brainwaves for their cyclical nature.

Using this electroencephalograph technology, Davidson asked his monks, each with 10,000 to 50,000 hours of meditation practice over their lifetimes, to concentrate on "unconditional loving-kindness and compassion." A group of inexperienced meditators were also trained for one-week and then instructed to do the same. The results were dramatic, revealing two important things: first, the monks exhibited a higher ratio of high frequency gamma brainwaves to slower alpha and beta waves during their resting baseline before the experiment began; and when the monks engaged in meditation, this ratio skyrocketed—up to 30 times stronger than that of the non-meditators. In fact, the gamma activity measured in some of the practitioners was the highest ever reported in a non-pathological context. Not only did this suggest that long-term mental training could alter brain activity, it also suggested that compassion might be something that could be cultivated.

New neurobiological research bolsters the idea that meditation effects a permanent restructuring of the brain. In 2008 a team of researchers from UCLA led by Eileen Luders compared the brains of long-term meditators with those of control subjects. In the brains of the meditators, they found larger volumes of gray matter in the right orbito-frontal cortex and the right hippocampus, areas thought to be implicated in emotion and response control. "It is likely that the observed larger hippocampal volumes may account for meditators' singular abilities and habits to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful behavior," Luders writes. They also discovered a marked increase of gray matter in the thalamus, which is thought to act as the brain's switchboard, relaying information between the cerebral cortex and subcortical areas. The change in size might allow for the meditators' enhanced sense of focus during their practice.

And it turns out, you don't have to be a yogi to reap the benefits of meditation. Even those who participate in short-term training courses can alter their brains, according to research published this summer: In a collaborative study between the University of Oregon and the Dalian University of Technology in China, neuroscientists discovered that a Chinese meditation technique called integrative body-mind training (IBMT) could alter the connectivity in the brain after just 11 hours of practice. Using a type of magnetic resonance called "diffusion tensor imaging," the researchers examined the white matter fibers connecting different brain regions before and after training. The changes were most dramatic in the anterior cingulate, an area implicated in emotion control.

Types of Brain Waves

The frequency of brainwaves varies among different mental states, indicating the amount of neuronal activity in the brain. Delta waves (below 4 Hz) are the longest waves and occur mostly during deep sleep. Theta waves (5-8 Hz) are seen most commonly in young children and in drowsy adults, often as an entree to sleep. Alpha waves (8-12 Hz) are the waves of an relaxed, non-aroused mind. Beta waves (12-30 Hz) are fast and low amplitude and are characteristics of an engaged mind. And finally gamma waves (30-100 Hz) are the highest in frequency and are thought to represent the synchronization of different brain areas as they carry out certain cognitive or motor functions. It is important to realize that the brain never produces just one type of these brain waves; they all occur simultaneously, but their ratios will change depending on one's mental state.


Far from being simply a relaxed state, meditation is a period of heightened activity in the brain—one that can actually reshape your brain. People as diverse as David Lynch and the Dalai Lama have touted the benefits of meditation, claiming that it can increase attention, combat stress, foster compassion, and boost health. And in the past two decades, neuroscientists have begun to understand the biological substrates of these claims. Research suggests that long-term meditation increases the orbitofrontal cortex, the hippocampus, and the thalamus, potentially increasing one's capacity for attention as well as compassion.

Q&A: An Interview with Jay Davies

Q&A: An Interview with Jay Davies

1.Describe your personality.
Team player, motivated to achieve, trustworthy, accountable, inquisitive, love a challenge and respond particularly well when told something can’t be done! Passionate about self awareness and really enjoy bringing the best out in others. I also love organic food!

2.What are your strengths as a Consultant?
Getting the best out of work teams, trouble shooting to find the core issues and creating an environment that encourages individual accountability.

3.What’s your most memorable workshop you’ve conducted and why?
Presenting in India at the Indo-Australian Multi Disciplinary Workshop and there was a power failure, the room went pitch black and I was requested to keep presenting as normal as it was the generator overheating, the audience ‘were business as usual’, fortunately it wasn’t the same day as I had a stomach bug and exited the stage rapidly after 30mins of my presentation. It made me appreciate the fact we truly do live in the luckiest country.

4.Where do you see Integral Development in 5 years time?
Recognized as a leading consultancy in integrating self awareness with business strategy and individual and team performance, whilst maintaining a focus on sustainable solutions that will take businesses to the next level of development in terms of minimizing their impact on the natural environment.

5.What are your thoughts on Leadership for the future?
After conducting numerous interviews for the Global Leadership Study my thoughts on leadership have shifted considerably. I now believe that everyone one of us has a responsibility to ourselves, to look internally and take ownership of our behaviour and particularly the impact it has on those around us. The best thing we can do is decide what we are most passionate about and then pursue that whole heartedly, I believe this will bring out the natural leader in all of us.

6.If you could invite 5 people to dinner, who would they be?
Mother Theresa for her humility, Richard Branson for a good laugh, The Unknown Rebel for his courage, Albert Einstein for his genius and Eleanor Roosevelt because of her passion for social justice.

7.Who is a Leader that inspires you and why?
Martin Luther King because of his belief in non violence and racial equity.

8.If you were stranded on a desert island, what book and 2 items and would you like with you?
Secrets of the Bulletproof Spirit would serve useful, a fishing rod and swimming goggles to do a few laps around the island.

Engaging people in the workplace

Competition for good people is on! Anyone with basic skills can get an offer of good money as a result of the current resources and energy boom. The challenge of recruiting and retaining high performing people is again at the top of the agenda for managers and HR directors.

Engaging people in their work is one of major solutions companies are trying out to retain good people. What engagement actually is can be unclear and some managers question whether it really provides benefits to the company.

Employee engagement has been defined as; “an individual’s involvement with, satisfaction and enthusiasm for the work he or she does.” Hewitt and Associates define engagement as “the state of emotional and intellectual involvement in a group or organisation, that is, the extent to which an organisation has captured the ‘hearts and minds’ of its people”. In short, an engaged employee is one with a positive attitude towards the organisation and its values and a desire to improve performance for the benefit of the organisation.

Does getting employee ‘engaged’ benefit the company? A study of 8000 business units in 36 companies found that employees with above average engagement had higher levels of customer satisfaction, were more productive, had higher profits and had lower levels of turnover and accidents than other companies. A global brewing company found engaged employees were five times less likely to have safety incidents and when incidents did occur it was much less serious and costly for an engaged employee than a disengaged employee. Another study showed that employee engagement results in greater ‘Total Shareholder Return’. The link between engagement and business results provides a good business case for increasing employee engagement

But the bad news is that engagement is a real concern for most organisations since surveys indicate that only around 15 to 30% employees are engaged in their work.

Engagement is generally agreed to consist of the following factors:
1. Dedication; commitment to the work and organisation
2. Absorption/attachment: identifying with and feeling of belonging to the company
3. Involvement: knowing what’s expected and able to have some say or control in your job
4. Vigour: putting energy and extra effort into the job

Most of these factors relate to the employees contribution to the organisation but more recent research has shown that full commitment is only obtained if the employee also; a) experiences positive feelings about themselves and their work and b) feel that the purpose of their work is worthwhile and satisfying.

So how can organisations engage their employees? The following is a brief list of ways to build employee engagement:
 Good leadership; engagement starts with leaders who are supportive, who value individuals, and help them to develop a sense of place in the organisation

 Communicate the purpose, direction and goals to each person and the role and contribution employee makes toward these.

 Look after the well being of staff by ensuring that they are satisfied with their job and they feel they are providing a worthwhile contribution to the purpose of the organisation..

 Ensure team processes, structures and rewards work for rather than against individual and team efforts

 Regularly meet with each person to discuss their work and ask their opinion

 Conduct sessions such as yoga, good diet and meditation to help staff maintain positive health and well-being

 Recognise their efforts and team contribution

Recently we met one leader who, despite a highly compliance-driven culture, was keen to fully engage his employees in becoming a high performing team. He committed to doing these things with his team and was pleased to see the positive results in morale and productivity.

Doing these things is the beginning of what excellent leaders do to engage staff. Overall, engagement is about building an authentic workplace that has a passion to provide your customers with outstanding service and value.


Article Published in WA Business News 30 September 2010, p. 20

Dr Ron Cacioppe is the Managing Director of Integral Development, one of Perth’s most unique and experienced leadership and management consultancies. Ron is also Adjunct Professor at Curtin’s Australian Sustainable Development Institute.

Sarah Newton-Palmer is a senior consultant with Integral Development and an experienced leadership facilitator. She has held senior positions in Learning and Development for BHP Billiton, WorleyParsons and National Australia Bank. She holds a Masters in Business Leadership degree from Curtin University Graduate Business School, is a published author and has drawn on her extensive experience in a large range of Australia’s corporations to produce a new Integral development program called The Art of Real Work.