I often write about the many positive effects of being a daily meditator. Now a recent study actually pinpoints the areas of the brain that are affected by daily meditation. This is a fascinating look at what really happens inside the brain, demonstrating the power of meditation in a visual way. People who meditate daily experience these effects — now we can actually see them. I’ve excerpted part of the article here. A link to the complete article is at the end of this post.
“A very interesting study published in January suggests that meditating for just 30 minutes a day for eight weeks can increase the density of gray matter in those brain regions associated with memory, stress, and empathy.
The researchers tracked 16 people who participated in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, developed more than 30 years ago by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Over eight weekly meetings, the program leads participants through meditation exercises meant to build the skills of mindfulness—a moment-by-moment awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Participants are supposed to try these practices on their own between classes.
For decades, people who’ve completed the MBSR training have reported feeling less stress and more positive emotions; participants suffering from chronic illnesses say they experience less pain afterward.
But in this study, the researchers weren’t just asking the participants how they felt. They were examining their brains, two weeks before and right after the eight-week program. Over the same period, they also scanned the brains of people who didn’t receive the MBSR training.
The MBSR participants, none of whom were experienced meditators, reported spending just under half an hour per day on their meditation “homework.” Yet when their brains were scanned at the end of the program, their gray matter was significantly thicker in several regions than it was before.
One of those regions was the hippocampus, which prior research has found to be involved in learning, memory, and the regulation of our emotions. The gray matter of the hippocampus is often reduced in people who suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The researchers also found denser gray matter in the temporo-perietal junction and the posterior cingulated cortex of the meditators’ brains—regions involved in empathy and taking the perspective of someone else—and in the cerebellum, which has been linked to emotion regulation.
These brain changes may suggest that meditation improves people’s ability to regulate their emotions, control their stress levels, and feel empathy for others, says Britta Hölzel, the study’s lead author and a research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of Geissen in Germany. However, she stresses that these conclusions are still very speculative.
The group that didn’t receive the MBSR training didn’t show any of these positive changes in brain structure.”