How Meditation Rewires Your Brain For Peak Mental Performance (Science-Backed)

In this high-paced world with lots of demands, information, and stress, meditation is a welcome reset from all the busyness. It's healthy to seek some silence amidst the chaos of daily life.

Personally, I see meditation as fitness for the brain. Where exercise makes you physically fit, meditation makes you mentally fit.

As Dr. Richard Davidson, neuroscientist and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison said:

"Meditation helps to cultivate a mental state that allows for greater focus and concentration by reducing the influence of distracting emotions and thoughts."

Although meditation is an ancient practice with roots in religious and spiritual traditions, its positive effects on mental and physical well-being have been well-researched by modern-day science.

Where the spiritual side of meditation never intrigued me that much, the growing body of research that showed how meditation could have profound effects on the brain got me deeply interested:

  • Research demonstrated that just five days of 20-minute meditation sessions improved attention and cognitive performance compared to a control group
  • ​A 2010 study showed that three months of meditation practice led to lasting improvements in attentional performance, as well as increased psychological well-being
  • ​A Harvard study showed that long-term meditators had increased gray matter in specific areas of the brain (making these parts of the brain work more efficiently)

Although these studies are just about the effect of meditation on our cognitive performance, meditation has also been shown to enhance mood, compassion, and emotional regulation.

In other words, meditation is a tool that should be part of a high-performance daily routine.

Meditation Helps To Build A Better Brain

Dr. Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, has researched the impact of meditation on the brain.

Her study found that long-term meditators had increased thickness in brain regions associated with attention, willpower, learning, and emotional regulation. "We found that the more hours a person had been practicing meditation, the more profound the changes were in the brain,"  she stated. 

In other words, meditation can physically change the brain (a process called neuroplasticity), just like lifting weights physically changes the shape and strength of our muscles.

Again, where exercise makes you physically fit, meditation makes you mentally fit.

Meditation And The Prefrontal Cortex (Better Focus & Willpower)

The prefrontal cortex is part of the brain that plays a critical role in executive functions, such as attention, decision-making, and willpower.

Dr. Amishi Jha, a neuroscientist at the University of Miami, found that regular mindfulness meditation increases gray matter in the prefrontal cortex.

In simplified terms, the more gray matter in someone's brain (or a specific region of the brain), the more effective their brain (or brain region) is.

In other words, regular meditation helps to build a more efficient prefrontal cortex. And the better our prefrontal cortex operates, the better we can perform in our professional lives.

Meditation And The Amygdala (Less Stress & Anxiety)

The amygdala, an almond-shaped structure in the brain, is responsible for managing our emotions, detecting threats, and initiating the body's stress response (the so-called fight-or-flight response).

Heightened activity in the amygdala can lead to increased anxiety and stress levels. It makes us feel on edge, negatively impacting our ability to focus and think clearly.

Sidenote: Chronic stress repeatedly triggers the amygdala, which leads to mind-racing thoughts, feeling anxious, and being more on edge.

Here too, meditation can help. Brain scans have found that participants who engaged in an eight-week mindfulness-based meditation showed significant reductions in amygdala activity.

As neuroscientist Dr. Sara Lazar said, "Meditation can help reduce amygdala reactivity and induce a more balanced emotional state, which may be particularly beneficial for individuals who struggle with concentration due to high levels of stress or anxiety."

In other words, regular meditation can help cultivate a calmer, more focused mental state as it reduces activity in the amygdala.

Meditation And The Default Mode Network (Less Mind-Wandering)

The brain's default mode network (DMN) is activated when the mind is engaged in introspection, daydreaming, and mind-wandering.

Harvard scientists have found that, on average, we spend 47% of our days with a wandering mind. Obviously, this doesn't help when we need to focus and get stuff done.

Dr. Judson Brewer, psychiatrist and neuroscientist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, stated, "Meditation helps to decrease the activation of the default mode network, which is responsible for mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts."

As a result, frequent meditators often report increased present-moment awareness (e.g., focus) and reduced mind-wandering.

Two Meditation Techniques For Laser-Focus

Just like there are many different ways to exercise, there are many different ways to meditate.

For example, there are loving-kindness meditations, sleep meditations, self-compassion meditations, spiritual meditations, and many other forms of meditation.

But two types of meditation are particularly well-suited for improving our focus, concentration, and cognitive performance. We'll discuss these two meditation techniques right now.

Technique #1: Mindfulness Meditation

Multiple studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can significantly improve attention, concentration, and cognitive performance.

The cornerstone of mindfulness meditation is the cultivation of present-moment awareness.

Many beginning meditators assume the goal of meditation is to get rid of all thoughts and achieve an empty mind. They get frustrated when their minds are busy.

But meditation isn't about emptying the mind. Even experienced Buddhist monks aren't always able to do that.

Instead, it's about becoming aware of when your mind is drifting, accepting these thoughts without judgment, and guiding your attention back to the present moment. This is how you train your mind to focus.

Here are a few key tips if you want to practice mindfulness meditation:

  • ​Start with five to ten minutes and gradually increase the duration as you gain more experience
  • ​You can practice meditation at any time of the day, but I prefer a morning meditation to start the day calm and focused
  • ​Keep your eyes closed and focus your attention on your breath, as this makes it easier to stay present during a meditation session

Again, I want to emphasize the importance of not judging yourself for any thoughts or emotions that arise during meditation. When you catch your mind drifting, guide your attention back to the breath.

Technique #2: Concentration Meditation

Concentration meditation involves focusing on a single reference point, such as the breath, a mantra, or a visual object. This type of meditation has been shown to strengthen the ability to sustain attention for extended periods.

During concentration meditation, I prefer to focus on a visual object in my surroundings (and yes, you're allowed to blink). 

Sometimes I keep a pen at arm's length and concentrate at the tip for a few minutes (usually three to five minutes). At other times I simply stare at a specific point on the wall.

This type of meditation is best done right before diving into a productive focus session, as it activates the brain and heightens concentration. 

You don't want to do a concentration meditation three to four hours before going to bed, as this practice puts your brain in an active state, which could negatively affect your sleep. 

Meditation Is A Long-Term Practice

Although meditation is one of the most effective tools to build a better brain and achieve mental peak performance, don't expect one session to rewire your brain or give you superhuman focus.

Just like working out, the most impactful benefits come from doing it repeatedly over a longer period. Consistency is key when it comes to most habits and practices.

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Hi, I'm Jari Roomer

Founder Personal Growth Lab

At PGL, we share science-based tools and routines to optimize your health, cognitive performance, and productivity.

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