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Meditation Can Change the Brain

Updated on March 29, 2012

Meditation has an effect on the brain

Meditation is rumored to be good for curing headaches, keeping focus, and even staying in shape. Now, a team of researchers led by Sara Lazar of Massachusetts General Hospital has found that some of these benefits result from actual physical changes in the brain.

Lazar herself has been practicing meditation for more than fifteen years. It was her personal interest in meditation that motivated her to pursue research in this area. Her previous studies have found that among meditators, gray matter is thicker in certain regions of the brain, including areas responsible for learning and memory. But these studies couldn’t show a causal connection between meditation and brain changes (after all, the thicker gray matter might be producing the inclination to meditate, not the other way around).

To establish the cause-and-effect connection, Lazar had 16 people of different ages participating in an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program. “The program is completely secular,” says Lazar, “teaching meditation as a tool to reduce stress rather than as part of a spiritual tradition.” As part of the program, participants had to attend weekly meditation meetings and to do meditation “homework,” which included yoga, breathing meditation, and slowly moving one’s attention though the body. The purpose of the homework, says Lazar, was “to increase body awareness.”

After the completion of the program, participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire that focused on their awareness of events taking place during the day. Their responses showed an improvement in the way they perceived stress. Specifically, they scored better on the Perceived Stress Scale, “which measures people's self-reported levels of stress,” explains Lazar.

But the main results of the study were revealed in the magnetic resonance images of the brains of the participants. The images showed increased gray matter in the hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for learning and memory, and decreased gray matter in the amygdala, which plays a role in anxiety and stress responses. Interestingly, the stress scale could have predicted this. Says Lazar, “The change in the amygdala was correlated with changes in PSS scores.”

Other brain structures also showed an increase in gray matter. One such structure is the temporal-parietal junction, which is responsible for what Lazar calls “perspective taking.” Explains Lazar, “Perspective taking is a key component of empathy and compassion (seeing other people's points of view).” The other two structures are the posterior cingulate and the cerebellum, which are responsible for people’s awareness of subtle and minor daily occurrences, such as tensing muscles and painful thoughts. “With meditation practice one becomes aware of them even when they occur very briefly,” says Lazar. One possible benefit of such scrupulous awareness, explains the scientist, is the ability to better control one’s emotions—and better manage stress.

Lazar’s results help her confirm what many meditators have long known—that daily meditation offers a unique advantage in dealing with stress. She says, “Some critics have said that meditation is just rest and that the same benefits would occur if you just took a nap.” But the results of this study, published in the January 30th issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, clearly show that meditation is not just rest. “Meditation practice actually impacts brain structure and function,” says Lazar. A daily dose of meditation is just what the doctor ordered to recharge the brain.


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