Meditating upon Meditation & the Brain
When Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, was advised by her physiotherapist to stop running, she took to Yoga as a form of physical therapy. She was quite hesitant to believe the claims made by her Yoga teacher about the benefits of meditative practices. However, over the weeks that she attended yoga class, she realized that she felt calmer than she had in years. Initially dismissing this change as a placebo effect, she soon realized that Yogic meditation was not only helping her body, it was also centering her mind – leaving her more energetic and more focused.
She then decided to take the available anecdotal evidence of the benefits of meditation and test it with brain scans using modern technology like fMRI scans.
Sara Lazar and her team at Harvard found that eight weeks of meditation increased the cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs memory and retention. There was a reduction in brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress.
These changes were mapped with the self-reports filled in by the participants which further proved that not only does meditation change the brain, it also impacts our perception and feelings.
Lazar elaborated “The first study looked at long term meditators vs a control group. We found long-term meditators have an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex. Which makes sense. When you’re mindful, you’re paying attention to your breathing, to sounds, to the present moment experience, and shutting cognition down. It stands to reason your senses would be enhanced. We also found they had more grey matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and executive decision making. It’s well-documented that our cortex shrinks as we get older – it’s harder to figure things out and remember things. But in this one region of the prefrontal cortex, 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter as 25-year-olds.”
So the first question was, well, maybe the people with more gray matter in the study had more gray matter before they started meditating. So Lazar and her team did a second study.
They took people who’d never meditated before, and put one group through an eight-week mindfulness- based stress reduction program. Lazar’s team found differences in brain volume after eight weeks in five different regions in the brains of the two groups. In the group that learned meditation, they found thickening in four regions:
- The primary difference, they found in the posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self relevance.
- The left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation.
- The temporo parietal junction, or TPJ, which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion.
- An area of the brain stem called the Pons, where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.
The amygdala, the fight or flight part of the brain which is important for anxiety, fear and stress in general. That area got smaller in the group that went through the mindfulness-based stress reduction program. The change in the amygdala was also correlated to a reduction in stress levels.
Recent research has begun to detect links between activity in the regions of the brain called the “default mode network” and mental disorders like depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. Meditation has been associated with a reduction in the activity in the default mode network hence alleviating stress, depression and anxiety.
The idea of a default mode network, however, is not universally accepted; even those who endorse the idea concede there still is a lot of work left to do to figure out the network’s exact functions. Regardless, at the very least the concept of a default mode network has sparked interest in understanding what the brain is doing when it is not involved in a specific task, and this line of research may help us to gain a more comprehensive understanding of brain function.
Meditation might be an important tool in the quest for a positive life approach as there is ample evidence of its beneficial effects for a number of cognitive domains, including attention, memory, verbal fluency, executive function, processing speed, overall cognitive flexibility as well as conflict monitoring and even creativity.
This wealth of cognitive studies does not only further support the idea that the human brain (and mind) is plastic throughout life but also lead to a number of relevant concepts and theories, such as that meditation is associated with an increasing control over the distribution of limited brain resources as well as with process-specific learning, rather than purely stimulus- or task-specific learning.
A recent study conducted by UCLA found that people who meditate have better preserved brains as they age than those who do not meditate. Participants who meditated have more grey matter throughout the brain. While there was some grey matter volume loss in older meditators compared to younger meditators, it was a negligible loss when compared the brains of aging non-meditators.
Meditation is now being used as a tool to help people overcome their addictions. One study (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21723049) has shown that meditation is far more effective in helping smokers overcome their addiction that several programs being run towards the same end.
If all the research is right, then meditation has the power to change you mentally and physically. So why don’t you give it a try! A few minutes of mindfulness could be life changing!
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