Why Meditation Matters for Med Students – and should for you too
It’s that time of year when people start getting their bodies in shape for summer. But when was the last time you thought about the physical fitness of your brain?
“For left-brainers who are scientific by nature, mediation can be a little out of their comfort zone,” says Dr. Heather MacLean, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine and physician at The Ottawa Hospital. “Perhaps it is too soft, too unstructured, too touchy-feely and maybe too unproven—but there is clear scientific evidence of the benefits of mindfulness.”
As a neurologist, Dr. MacLean thought she really knew the brain—until she started to explore the concepts and practices of mindfulness. First, it helped her. Then, she used it to help her students in the uOttawa Undergraduate Medical Education program, who have been offered a course in mindfulness and meditation since 2014
“I was struck by the level of anxiety they are dealing with,” said Dr. MacLean. “They needed coping mechanisms and this was an obvious tool for us to share with them.”
So, she worked with fellow faculty members to develop a mindfulness curriculum for medical students, the foundation of which is her book, Mindfulness for Medical School, Residency and Beyond.
MacLean explains that mindfulness is the practice of purposely paying attention to present moment experiences non-judgmentally and meditation is the “exercise” that helps us flex those mindfulness muscles. Meditation involves simple exercises such as paying conscious attention to one’s breath and consciously scanning one’s bodily sensations–exercises that involve practicing focused attention–and this is when the real brain magic happens.
“You might wonder how focusing attention on something as mundane as breathing can possibly train the brain to do anything except, well, breathe a bit better,” says Dr. MacLean. “But by learning to do simple meditations that you practice regularly, you are unknowingly changing your brain’s function and structure—and improving its overall abilities.”
The Science of Meditation and how it changes the brain
If you’ve been thinking of dabbling in meditation but needed a good reason to try it out, here are a few physical benefits outlined in Dr. MacLean’s textbook Mindfulness for Medical School, Residency and Beyond.
Improve your focus by changing your brain rhythms
Research has shown that experienced meditators, depending on the depth of their focus and relaxation and on the subject of their meditation, can show changes in brain wave rhythm. For example, many adeptly generate a gentle rhythmic alpha wave classic of a relaxed wakeful state, a rhythm that promotes focused attention and can help either suppress or amplify sensory inputs so can consciously enhance appreciation of certain experiences and tune out others.[i]
Boost your positive thinking by tidying up your brain’s wiring
When certain neural pathways are used frequently, those pathways become hardwired biologically through the development of new synapses, the strengthening of old synapses, the regulation of gene expression, or even the growth of new neural connections. The ability of the brain to alter its own structure is called “neuroplasticity.” Due to this learning function of the brain, if you habitually dwell on anxious and negative thoughts, those thoughts become easier and easier to have over time. Conversely, if you cultivate calm and positive thoughts and attitudes, those pathways can become hardwired in place, making this your predominant state of mind.
Manage your stress by calming your amygdala
The amygdala can be described as the air raid siren of the brain, which triggers fight or flight response. If you’re feeling stress, that sensation is coming from this part of the brain. As meditators improve, the activity in their amygdala dampens, ultimately resulting in a decrease of perceived stress.[ii]
Help fight the aging process by thickening parts of your brain
In regular meditators, certain areas of the brain have been found to be physically thicker as measured by MRI (i.e., higher numbers of neurons and neural connections). These include brain locations responsible for attention as well as sensory, cognitive and emotional processing. Additionally, regular meditation may have neuroprotective effects, reducing the cognitive decline associated with normal aging.[iii]
Content from this article was borrowed from Dr. Heather MacLean’s textbook, Mindfulness for Medical School, Residency and Beyond.
[i] Kerr CE, SR Jones, Q Wan, DL Pritchett, RH Wasserman, A Wexler, JJ Villanueva, JR Shaw, SW Lazar, TJ Kaptchuk, R Littenberg, MS Hämäläinen, and CI Moore. May 30, 2011. Effects of mindfulness meditation training on anticipatory alpha modulation in primary somatosensory cortex. Brain Res Bull. 85(3-4): 96-103.
[ii] Hölzel BK, J Carmody, KC Evans, et al. 2009. Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 5(1): 11–17.
[iii] Lazar SW, CE Kerr, RH Wasserman, et al. 2005. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport. 16(17): 1893–1897.