Meditation has become increasingly popular, and at some point we may ask, "Why are we meditating? What does it actually do? What is happening that makes a difference?" This short article can only cover a small portion of the effects seen from meditation, but is meant to highlight an important aspect of what happens. Let us first set the stage.
The brain anatomy we inherit from our parents determines the original landscape upon which our brain's "empire" will be built. We inherit individual tendencies, these are like the weather patterns, and natural resources of an area -- largely predetermined, but can be nurtured or deteriorated by our habits. The landscape-anatomy of our brain determines which skills we perform best, and which habits become automatic, but there's a twist to this story.
Neuroscientists have discovered that where we direct our attention, not the environmental conditions alone, determines which specific areas we develop and redevelop. Our attention changes the anatomy; it is the land developer and construction crew all in one. The developed landscape of our brain determines how it will function. This ability to change the landscape of our brains and ultimately augment how our minds will operate is called neuroplasticity. We are constantly, willingly, changing the structure of our most fascinating organ as we move our attention here and there. At any moment we can be commanding areas to be restructured and modify the direction of our "empire." All mental exercises will have this effect, and the areas they influence depends on the skills we are using. This certainly adds a level of complexity to the whole "nature or nurture" question of how our personalities and talents are shaped.
We've also discovered that once a skill can be done without attention, our brains stop shaping those areas. Our brain figures that part of our "empire" is working just fine and puts its resources elsewhere. Walking is a great example: after we've learned to walk well we can practically ignore that we're doing it, and the complex movements don't change much. We don't walk better, even though we constantly practice. We all trip and roll our ankles from time to time, but unless we have a severe injury our brains stick with what worked in the past.
"So what does neuroplasticity have to do with meditation?" I'm glad you asked!
It is useful to develop our concentration through meditation, focusing and refocusing our attention. Through meditation we learn to engage areas of our brains that are otherwise rarely used in our day to day life. Though each technique will have unique effects, all meditations have the common theme of gradually quieting our minds and allowing us to feel a connection to the present moment.
By using our attention during a mindful meditation, we are training our brain to become more and more connected to the current moment. This has the effect of allowing ourselves to see what's actually happening, without getting caught in our opinion of the situation. In the current moment we disengage from the pull of memories, fantasies and worries and this is likely why many forms of meditation can help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. Though mindfulness meditation works on similar brain centers as those seen with anti-depressants, we're not certain if these effects come from the same chemical mechanisms.
So if you are considering sitting for a meditation and wondering "What the hell am I doing this for anyways?" remember that you're changing the structures of your brain. Your improvements to these areas, though laborious, will provide your "empire" with prosperity for years to come.