Science figured out how meditation works on the brain in the 1800's.
About time they let us know.
If you’ve ever wondered how meditation actually works on the brain, you’re not alone. In case you haven’t heard, (where’ve ya been?) meditation and slow breathing is extremely beneficial in many aspects of your life…from reducing stress, to lowering blood pressure, all the way to helping you get your taxes done (well, that may be a stretch, but here’s hoping!). But in all honesty, how does meditation and slow breathing work? What’s the secret behind this magical idea that seems like it’s just too easy to actually work? Must be magic, right? Good news…you’re reading this article. My aim here is to bring this well-kept secret to your attention in a straightforward, non-science jargon kind of way. Once you read what it’s all about, you’ll then maybe understand those Youtube videos and how the different techniques work better than the person in the video.
Every now and then I come across a little nugget of knowledge that knocks me on my backside. Some things are well known, just not by me at the time. Others seem to be not on the radar of mainstream culture at all. Here, I’ll share with you one of these little goodies just in case you might be in the same boat and it may just blow your mind as well.
How Meditation Works: The Study That Solved It
Back in 1882, Scottish researcher N.C. Paul wrote a tidy little book called A Treatise on the Yoga Philosophy. In this book he explains some simple workings of the breath that caught my undivided attention for some time now.
Paul writes on the sound Om made with meditation and yoga practice, “The word Om, which, for one, has the property of diminishing the quantity of carbonic acid evolved from the lungs during a given time is employed to designate the Supreme Being. The pronunciation of this word, which prolongs the Kumbhaka, or interval between an inspiration and expiration, is monopolized by the Brahman tribe of the Hindus.” He continued, “Counting their rosary is also a very common practice of the yogis. The aerial Brahman of Madras, who practiced the suspension of breath (pranayama), counted his beads while he maintained the aerial posture, with his hand resting upon a Yoga-danda or staff…”.
THE JIST OF HOW MEDIATION WORKS ON THE BRAIN
To sum it all up, slow breathing raised the levels of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream. At this point, I knew I found something not many are talking about. Most of what I’ve found online about how meditation works all relates to how CO2 can change the acidity of the blood. This was different. I went deep into the principles and techniques of breathing, meditation, and yoga. This idea from Paul sort of went against how I understood the workings of breathing.
Oxygen is the cornerstone of animal life on earth and has been the reigning king of the body of study for what is needed for optimal health. Teachings abound with direction to saturate or supersaturate the body with oxygenated blood by taking in more oxygen. This seemed to make sense. Then my old biology class lessons kicked in and some things didn’t add up
Sometimes it’s beneficial to look at the ancient teachings of the East to see what has worked as a starting point, then use modern science to see why. We can safely assume (but not always) that, if a certain technique has been used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, it probably works. The science of yoga, how meditation works, and what breathwork does, from the ancient Hindus relies on slow breathing. This is done to obtain a state of mind that is clear and fresh. The goal was Samadhi (total enlightenment). Think of Buddha under the bodhi tree. Fast breathing and more oxygen isn’t going to get it done. There’s no supersaturating of the blood with oxygen. Slow and deep breathing is what gives us the major benefit we are all looking for…and the science behind it is pretty simple.
OXYGEN AND CARBON DIOXIDE: A MARRIAGE WRITTEN IN BLOOD
Oxygen is a much smaller molecule than carbon dioxide. This is the key for how meditation works on the brain. Read that line again and visualize both oxygen and carbon dioxide side by side. Think of one as the size of a compact rental car, and the other as a big 7-seater SUV. Our blood pathways and capillaries (the teeny tiny ones deep in the brain and tissues) now become the highways for these imaginary compact cars and SUVs. The goal of mind work (yoga, meditation, chanting, etc), from a physiological standpoint, is to drive as much oxygen as deep into the brain as possible. But how do we do this? As I’ll demonstrate, getting more oxygen isn’t all that attainable. We’ve all heard of hemoglobin, right? But what does it do? Basically, hemoglobin is the container in the blood that carries oxygen through the body. Each container can hold four oxygen molecules. Simple enough. For the most part, a relatively healthy adult without breathing issues like asthma or bronchitis, obtains about a 95% oxygen level while breathing normally….so with each breath, 95 out of 100 hemoglobin containers get filled. Not too shabby at all. Breathing deeper or faster won’t fill the containers any more full…they each can hold four, no more. And where there are only a handful left that could take more, adding one or two won’t account to very much in the form of positive bang for your buck.
Now, you might ask, if the compact rental car is already full with normal breathing, how are we supposed to get it deeper into the tissues and, importantly, brain? The key here isn’t to get more cars on the road, but to actually widen the road itself, and make it go farther, to the little villages deep in the forest that, up until now, have only been accessible via walking path. With this new widened and deeper roadway into the brain, the already maxed out oxygen in our blood can now supply regions of our brain that usually survive on very little oxygen.
We’ve all heard of hemoglobin, right? But what does it do? Basically, hemoglobin is the container in the blood that carries oxygen through the body. Each container can hold four oxygen molecules. Simple enough. For the most part, a relatively healthy adult without breathing issues like asthma or bronchitis, obtains about a 95% oxygen level while breathing normally….so with each breath, 95 out of 100 hemoglobin containers get filled. Not too shabby at all. Breathing deeper or faster won’t fill the containers any more…they each can hold four, no more. And where there are only a handful left that could take more, adding one or two won’t amount to very much.
So how are we supposed to get oxygen deeper into the tissues and, importantly, the brain? The key here isn’t to get more cars on the road, but to actually widen the road itself and make it go farther. The main reason how meditation works is with this new widened and deeper roadway into the brain, the already maxed out oxygen in our blood can now supply regions of our brain that usually survive on very little oxygen.
The much larger carbon dioxide molecule helps give our blood vessels size and volume. The more carbon dioxide in the blood, the wider it will stretch out the blood vessels. This is known as the vasodilating effect of CO2. It’s levels fluctuate with speed and intensity of the breath. Normal levels are between 23 and 29 mmol/L. This can increase or decrease due to the fact it doesn’t need a carrier like hemoglobin to bind to. It’s through these wider pathways and brain capillaries that the blood with the same 95% oxygen level can now reach new territory more easily.
Your Homework: Breathwork
Another aspect of the old time yogis lifestyle was not just how they breathed, but where. Living in a cave high in the Himalayas leaves a lot to be desired as far as modern amenities go, but there was a method to their proverbial madness. As the air pressure decreases, so does the concentration of blood oxygen levels. This would, in effect, increase the percentage of carbon dioxide per capita, per se, compared to oxygen levels, thus further dilating the blood capillaries in the body (and brain).
Packing up your yoga mat and hopping a jet for Nepal may not be an option at this time, but let’s look at a nice and easy way to get you started on your way. Dr. Andrew Weil, whose book 8 Weeks to Optimum Health was one of my first purchases from the Book of the Month Club back in the 90s, has the 4-7-8 Method that will get you where you need to go. And don’t worry about the numbers, just getting somewhere close to those are going to give you the benefit. Once you’ve mastered this, a quick Youtube and Google search will bring you a world of options of where you might want to go next. But first, keep it simple silly.
Who's Got The Time Anyway?
An old Zen proverb fits nicely here…”You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day — unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour”. At first, meditation may seem like a chore getting in the way and taking up precious time in your crazy life. But, you’ll soon realize that by taking that time out early in the day to focus and get centered, the rest of the day goes just that much smoother that you’ve gained back those 20 min in optimizing your productivity. Everything from folding laundry to coding software happens with just a little more ease.