Meditation Can Grow Your Brain in Just 8 Weeks Boosting memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress
A team of researchers led by Dr. Lazar, a neurologist and instructor at Harvard medical school, has discovered that meditating for just 8 weeks can fuel grey-matter in the hippocampus and promote brain ‘growth’. More specifically, the practice of meditation can spark measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress.
For the study, 16 volunteers took part in Dr. Lazar’s ‘mindfulness’ course, with magnetic resonance (MR) images being taken 2 weeks before and after the study. After just 8 short weeks of practicing mindfulness meditation, her volunteers showed thicker grey matter in several important areas of the brain, including the left hippocampus, a small horseshoe-shaped structure in the central brain involved in memory, learning and emotional regulation.
Additional parts of the brain positively affected by just eight weeks of meditation were posterior the cingulate cortex – also important for memory and emotions; the temporoparietal junction, involved in empathy creation; and the cerebellum, which helps to coordinate movement.
Study senior author Sara Lazar of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program and a Harvard Medical School instructor in psychology, said:
“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day. This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”
Britta Hölzel, first author of the paper and a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany, said:
“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life. Other studies in different patient populations have shown that meditation can make significant improvements in a variety of symptoms, and we are now investigating the underlying mechanisms in the brain that facilitate this change.”
Those who did not go take part in Dr. Lazar’s course experienced no such structural brain changes.
The meditation course seemed to cause the brain to form denser connections among important centers that regulate our behavior and help us to be ‘smart.’
This translates to all sorts of possible benefits – from handling stress better at work and in our lives, to conducting out responsibilities with more élan. Sure, you can cram for those finals, or beat your head against the wall trying to meet a deadline at work, but maybe some life-long meditative practices can help.
Her talk and pictures are highly motivating for those looking for an edge in their industry or who just need some extra oomph to get through their hectic lives.
You can see Dr. Lazar talk about her brain scans in a Ted Talks video here.
New Study: Meditation Alters Genes Rapidly, Triggers Molecular Changes
If you are a practitioner of meditation, the results of a new study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology will likely come as no surprise. But for some scientists, the revelation that meditating can actually trigger molecular changes is groundbreaking.
The researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Institute of Biomedical Research in Barcelona, Spain found subjects who partook of 8-hour intensive mindfulness meditation showed significant molecular changes.
A group of experienced meditation practitioners spent an 8-hour day in mindfulness while a control group spent the day in quiet but non-meditative activities. The meditation group experienced genetic changes including reduced levels of inflammatory genes like RIPK2 and COX2, indicating faster recovery from stressful situations.
As Medical News Today reports:
“The extent to which some of the genes were down-regulated was associated with faster cortisol recovery to a social stress test, where participants were challenged to make an impromptu speech or complete mental calculations in front of an audience.”
In other words, the meditation helped participants keep cool under pressure.
“The regulation of HDACs and inflammatory pathways may represent some of the mechanisms underlying the therapeutic potential of mindfulness-based interventions. Our findings set the foundation for future studies to further assess meditation strategies for the treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions,” explained Perla Kaliman, co-author of the study.
Far from the first study on meditation, this is the first to demonstrate molecular changes caused by the age-old practice.
“Our genes are quite dynamic in their expression and these results suggest that the calmness of our mind can actually have a potential influence on their expression,” said Dr. Richard J. Davidson of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.
Meditation has been used for centuries and longer to assist humankind with their spiritual and health endeavors. In other words, this study is catching up with what many people have known for a long time—that the mind can influence the body.
Other studies have linked meditation practice with stress reduction, IBS and digestive relief, the easing of cold symptoms, and helping to regulate blood pressure. Meditation was even shown tobeat morphine in reducing pain in one small study. These studies didn’t explain how the meditation was working, but this most recent one seems to tap a new expanse of potential.
When it comes to the world of science, evidence is king. Anecdotes and surveys that reveal meditation to have physical benefits are not as convincing as genetic proof. Practitioners of meditation may not need that sort of laboratory evidence, but for scientists it provides a foundation of legitimacy for a practice they may have previously doubted.