One of the main benefits of regular meditation practice is the state of calm and connection it leaves you with, which continues long after you’ve finished a session.
That’s because meditation teaches you to regulate your emotions while paying attention to your mind, body, and daily experiences.
You’ll be well aware that meditation is a powerful tool for dealing with stress and anxiety. But it’s only recently that scientists discovered exactly why. There’s now plenty of evidence showing how the practice causes physical changes in parts of the brain related to our response to stress.
Several studies have shown that the amygdala - the part of the brain that triggers the body’s fight or flight response - is smaller in meditators than non-meditators. This may lead to greater emotional control and a reduced tendency to be overwhelmed by stressful situations.
One conclusion to draw from that finding is that, actually, perhaps the kind of people drawn to meditation just have smaller amygdalas to begin with: that calm people like to meditate, rather than meditation making people calmer.
However, MRI studies have explored this idea and found that over the course of just 8 weeks, non-meditators who begin the practice actually see their amygdala shrink over time.
The shrinking amygdala is only one aspect of a complicated relationship between the brain and meditation. Studies have already suggested that meditation enlarges several brain areas responsible for regulating emotion.
So you get the idea: Meditation and calm go hand in hand.
Meditation and Neuroception
Now, we all assume that the benefits of meditation are deeply personal. But there’s increasing evidence that the people around a calm person can also benefit. This neuroscience concept, called Neuroception, is still in its infancy.
Neuroception is the capacity of people’s nervous systems to communicate. It’s an automatic process by which the nervous system detects cues of safety and danger, and triggers biological changes accordingly.
The concept of Neuroception explains why a baby coos at a caregiver but cries at a stranger, or why a toddler takes comfort from a parent's embrace but views a hug from a stranger in the opposite light.
“There’s an obvious contagious effect with our emotional and cognitive experiences; we’re constantly affected by others and their emotional states. That’s the function of families and tribes; we’re not people meant to be in isolation from one another.” - Anna Lembke, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine.
On an emotional level, if you are in the presence of another person feeling anxious or angry, it’s likely that your heart will beat faster while your sympathetic nervous system (responsible for activating our fight-or-flight mode) is engaged.
On the other hand, if a person seems calm and inviting as perceived by your brain, you might feel instantly calm and connected. This suggests that the physical effects of other peoples’ emotions are literally contagious.
“Neuroception is like our internal surveillance system, which is always sensing into each other’s energy and experience. My nervous system is trying to sense from your tone of voice if you’re safe to engage with or not. This happens without our awareness, but we may feel the outcome of it when something changes in our biology.” - Deb Dana LCSV & Polyvagal Theory specialist.
The idea is that our nervous systems automatically and subconsciously scan for signals of safety, and that as a result we can use our own own regulated (calm) nervous systems to help other people move from a state of stress or anxiety to a state of calmness and connection. Basically, one person’s regulated nervous system reminds another person that it’s possible to calm down.
Meditation seems like the perfect vehicle for this kind of action. A meditation practitioner can use their state of calm and connectedness to offer a person feeling anxious or stressed cues of safety that will in turn tell their nervous system that it is okay to be safe and calm.
This concept of neuroception reminded me of a study from 1976 on the Maharishi effect. A group of monks was sent into a crime-ridden community and started practicing Transcendental meditation with its members. Over time, the crime rate dropped by an astounding 16%. The power of meditation appeared to shift the collective consciousness.
At a time when we are all worried about the transmission of a deadly virus, it’s worth taking a step back and thinking about how you can instead make calmness contagious. The fascinating concept of neuroception is yet another reason to try meditation and introduce your loved ones to the practice.
It’s good for you, for those you love, and maybe even for your wider community.
Keen to try meditation for the first time? I’m launching an online Intro to Meditation experience that will guide you through the foundations of several forms of meditation. The three-week, six-session course starts on May 4th. You can sign up here.