So you still don’t meditate? Join the club — it’s a big one. But there’s also a compelling new reason for all of us to finally do it: There is now scientific proof that meditating changes the brain in ways that allow people to feel better about their lives.
How great is that?
The new research found that meditation is not only pleasant and stress-reducing, but that it actually brings lasting physiological changes that are health-enhancing — for example, giving people an improved sense of self and lower levels of anxiety.
If you’re thinking “yes, well, we already knew that about meditation,” actually, we didn’t. It’s true that there have been many reports on why meditating is thought to be healthful, but this particular study is new and very newsworthy because it shows how the brain literally expands with meditation. The research team, led by scientists from Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital, designed its research to be very clear on cause and effect, using brain imaging technology to measure how the brains of people who meditated changed over the eight-week study period. They found that a particular form of meditation known as mindfulness meditation altered gray matter in several parts of the brain. The study was reported in the January 30, 2011, issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.
We spoke with study senior author Sara Lazar, PhD, an associate research scientist at the Massachusetts General Hospital Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program, who talked more about how meditation changes your brain.
Sixteen volunteers open to trying meditation for stress reduction participated in an eight-week program of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Participants met weekly for two and a half hours to practice meditation exercises aimed at improving well-being, reducing stress and increasing mindfulness. (Mindfulness is defined as being completely aware of the present moment and taking a nonjudgmental approach to your feelings and thoughts.) The participants were also given audio recordings with 45-minute guided mindfulness exercises that they were asked to do at home — they reported spending an average of 27 minutes a day on the exercises. Results:Compared with self-reports recorded prior to the study, the participants indicated significant improvements in mindfulness on a questionnaire that they completed at the end of the study. That’s consistent with earlier research, but the most significant aspect of this study was that researchers also did MRI scans of participants’ brains before and after the program… and these scans were the first to show structural changes in the brain. In particular, meditation produced beneficial changes in those areas associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. None of these changes were seen in the MRI images of a control group of nonmeditators taken at similar intervals.
Specifically, the researchers found that compared with people in the control group, the meditators had increased brain volume and/or density in several areas that are beneficial to health and mental function, including the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory… the temporal-parietal junction (TPJ), which is associated with compassion and empathy… and the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), an area responsible for sense of self and introspection. “Other researchers have found changes in learning and memory, attention and compassion as a result of meditation, so these changes in the brain areas may explain their findings,” says Dr. Lazar.
The researchers also found that, consistent with prior studies, the practice of meditation led to decreasedgray matter density in the amygdala, a brain area that plays an important role in fear, anxiety and stress — changes that correlate with participant-reported reductions in stress at the completion of the study. “Many studies have documented that mindfulness meditation is effective for reducing stress,” Dr. Lazar noted. “But this study shows what underlies the improvement.”
How They Did It
The study participants engaged in three different types of mindfulness training exercises…
- Sitting meditation. They were taught to become highly aware of the sensation of breathing and then to expand that to include awareness of sights, sounds, tastes and other body sensations as well as thoughts and emotions. Unlike other forms of meditation, mindfulness meditation does not involve repeatedly saying something out loud, such as a mantra or affirmation.
- Mindful yoga. This type of yoga consists of gentle stretching exercises and slow movements, always coordinated with the breath. Dr. Lazar told me that this type of yoga emphasizes the moment-to-moment experience and a “nonharming” attitude toward the body that pays attention to any bodily limitations.
- Guided body scans. In this exercise, your attention is guided sequentially through your entire body while you observe with nonjudgmental awareness the sensations in each region. Ultimately, you’ll have an awareness of your body as a complete whole.
How You Can Do It
This particular study involved people who reported themselves as being under stress but, said Dr. Lazar, other research has shown that anyone can benefit from meditation.
Eight-week mindfulness meditation training, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is taught in numerous clinics around the country. Participants receive stress-reduction education and recordings of guided meditation to practice at home. The cost varies, typically ranging from $200 to $525 for the course. You can find the classes closest to where you live by going to http://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/home/index.aspx(click on “The Stress Reduction Program,” then “Find MBSR Programs Worldwide” at the bottom of the page).
Meditation is a low-cost, easy and effective way to improve your health and better your life, and there appears to be absolutely no downside to it — what are you waiting for?