Meditation and the Brain


image of brain representing meditation and the brainThe Washington Post recently ran an interesting article chronicling the study of one Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Her study looked at the effects of meditation on the brain.

In conversations with the Washington Post, Lazar revealed that she had first started to practice yoga to treat a running injury, after it was suggested to her by her physical therapist. After realizing firsthand the benefits of yoga, Lazar became interested in finding out why exactly yoga worked so well in treating her injury. After speaking with her yoga teacher and hearing about how yoga “increases your compassion and opens your heart”, Lazar began to notice that she had become calmer and better able to handle more difficult situations. She was also “more compassionate and openhearted, and able to see things from others’ points of view”.

A true scientist at heart, Sara’s first instinct was to believe that she was suffering from the placebo response (which occurs when a person who is ill perceives an improvement or actually experiences an improvement in symptoms or overall health from the psychological effect of receiving treatment rather than from the treatment itself). That was until she did a literature search of the science and saw evidence proving “that meditation had been associated with decreased stress, decreased depression, anxiety, pain and insomnia, an enhanced ability to pay attention, and an increased quality of life.” In other words, there was a direct correlation between meditation and the brain. These associations were enough to cause Lazar to switch her PhD studies from molecular biology to further studying the effects of meditation on the brain.

Lazar’s findings

Her studies showed “that long-term meditators” had “an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex.” This makes sense, stated Lazar, given that “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.”

Additional gray matter was also found in the frontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with working memory and executive decision-marking. This area normally shrinks as we get older, making it harder to figure things out and remember them. However, this area in a 50 year old who regularly meditated remarkably had the same amount of gray matter as that of a 25 year old.

To prove that the increase in gray matter was in fact directly related to meditation, Lazar and her team conducted a second study. In this follow-up study, people who had never meditated before were put through an 8 week program of mindfulness-based stress reduction. Every week the participants were given a recording and asked to practice 40 minutes a day at home. The results of the study showed an increase in gray matter in all of the participants, further confirming Lazar’s findings from her original study.

An interesting study for sure and further proof of the positive impact that meditating, in any shape or form, has on the body.

To your inner peace – Anna

References:

Schulte, B. (n.d.). Meditation’s effect on the brain shows up in scan. Retrieved June 16, 2015, from http://health.heraldtribune.com/2015/06/16/meditations-effect-on-the-brain-shows-up-in-scan/#

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