How Meditation Can Change Your Brain

In my previous post I discussed the reluctance within academia to incorporate wellness tools in higher education institutions. Part of this reluctance may derive from the uncertainty surrounding the actual impact of wellness tools on health and wellbeing. In this post I will explore some of the latest scientific evidence, which objectively confirms the benefits of meditation for the brain.

Electric Brain

Just as humanity used to believe the world was flat, the medical community once considered the human brain to be a relatively static organ. On average, the brain was thought to reach its developmental peak around our mid-20s, after which we would experience the inevitable atrophy of one of our most complex and valued organs. This assumed trajectory of the brain’s development has provided little hope for reversing some of the most common neurological disorders of our time, such as Alzheimer’s disease, which has continued to steadily increase.

However, through the discovery of something called neuroplasticity, medical researchers have now begun to challenge many long-standing assumptions in the field of neuroscience. Far from being a static organ, neuroplasticity reveals the human brain to be much more dynamic and adaptable than previously thought. In conjunction with this discovery, advancements in technology have opened up the possibility of scientifically measuring changes in the brain over time. Among the types of activities that have recently been subject to scientific investigation is the impact of meditation on the brain.

A vast amount of literature has accumulated over the years on the positive impacts of meditation for general health and wellbeing. Across several studies, meditation has been correlated with alleviating symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Meditators have also reported experiencing lower levels of stress and a general improvement in their overall quality of life. Despite this continuously expanding body of evidence in favour of meditation, many of the studies that have been undertaken to date have relied upon entirely subjective research methods. It was this fact that inspired a team of neuroscientists at Harvard University to objectively assess the impact of meditation on the brain using a technique called Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).

The experiments, which were led by neuroscientist Dr Sarah Lazar, consisted of selecting two groups across a similar demographic that had not previously meditated. Dr Lazar’s team put one of the groups on an 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme involving a daily guided meditation while the control group were instructed to continue with their daily routines as normal. Participants in the MBSR group reportedly spent an average of 27 minutes per day meditating.

While MRI scans showed no significant changes among the control group, Dr Lazar’s team found some startling results in the group of meditators. After just 8 weeks of meditating, MRI scans revealed notable changes in a number of areas of the brain including an increase in cortical thickness or gray matter concentration in the left hippocampus, the posterior cingulate cortex, pre-frontal cortex and the temporo-parietal junction – parts of the brain associated with memory, concentration, cognition, decision-making, problem-solving, and emotional regulation. The scans also revealed a decreased activation and stilling of the Default Mode Network (DMN), responsible for directionless thought and mind wandering, as well as a decrease in the size of the amygdala – the focal point of the brain’s fight or flight stress response mechanism. What these findings reveal is that meditation can literally change the structure of the brain!

Here is a clip of Dr Lazar explaining her motivations for this research, the methods her team applied and the implications of their findings:

This is a fascinating and powerful scientific discovery that objectively confirms the benefits of meditation for the brain. What is perhaps most exciting about these findings is that these positive neurological changes can be observed in as little as 8 weeks.

Please stay tuned for my next post, which will explore tips and techniques for integrating a meditation practice into your daily routine.

Photo Credit: ‘Electric Brain‘ © Michael Coghlan (2012) CC Licence





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