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Meditation can Change the Structure of the Brain

(Editor’s Note: We are pleased to bring you this arti­cle by Jason Marsh, thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Greater Good Mag­a­zine.)


I con­sid­er myself some­thing of a prospec­tive meditator—meaning that a seri­ous med­i­ta­tion prac­tice is always some­thing I’m about to start… next week. So for years, I’ve been mak­ing a men­tal note of new stud­ies show­ing that med­i­ta­tion can lit­er­al­ly change our brain struc­ture in ways that might boost con­cen­tra­tion, mem­o­ry, and pos­i­tive emo­tions.

The results seem entic­ing enough to make any­one drop into the full lotus position—until you read the fine print: Much of this research involves peo­ple who have med­i­tat­ed for thou­sands of hours over many years; some of it zeroes in on Olympic-lev­el med­i­ta­tors who have clocked 10,000 hours or more. Pret­ty daunt­ing.

Well, a new study offers some hope—and makes the ben­e­fits of med­i­ta­tion seem with­in reach even for a novice like me. The study, pub­lished in Jan­u­ary in the jour­nal Psy­chi­a­try Research: Neu­roimag­ing, sug­gests that med­i­tat­ing for just 30 min­utes a day for eight weeks can increase the den­si­ty of gray mat­ter in brain regions asso­ci­at­ed with mem­o­ry, stress, and empa­thy.

The researchers tracked 16 peo­ple who were par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Mind­ful­ness-Based Stress Reduc­tion (MBSR) pro­gram, the train­ing 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.

Brain scans of the hip­pocam­pus, show­ing the regions the researchers deter­mined were affect­ed by med­i­ta­tion. Image adapt­ed from B. Hölzel, et al., Psy­chi­a­try Research: Neu­roimag­ing Vol. 191 (1), Jan­u­ary 30, 2011, pp. 36–43.

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.

Pre­vi­ous research has shown that the struc­ture of very expe­ri­enced med­i­ta­tors’ brains is dif­fer­ent from non-med­i­ta­tors in cer­tain regions, but it couldn’t prove that the med­i­ta­tors didn’t have excep­tion­al brains to begin with. This is the first study to doc­u­ment a dif­fer­ence in brain struc­ture from before some­one starts a med­i­ta­tion prac­tice to after they’ve got­ten underway—and after only eight weeks, at that.

While oth­er research, notably a 2003 study led by Richard David­son of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin, Madi­son, has shown that people’s brain activ­i­ty changes after the eight-week MBSR course, there hadn’t been evi­dence that the effects of med­i­ta­tion can go so deep as to change the struc­ture of the brain.

The results of this new study offer fur­ther evi­dence for the “plas­tic­i­ty” of the brain, mean­ing it can change its shape over time. That sug­gests we’re not sim­ply stuck with the neur­al cards we’re dealt; we can fun­da­men­tal­ly improve our cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al capac­i­ties.

I think what’s real­ly pos­i­tive and promis­ing about this study is that it sug­gests our well-being is in our hands,” says Hölzel. “What I find fas­ci­nat­ing is that just pay­ing atten­tion in a dif­fer­ent way and being more aware can have such an impact that it even changes the struc­ture of our brain.”

It’s impor­tant to note that med­i­ta­tion isn’t the only research-test­ed way to pro­duce these changes in the brain. A study pub­lished last week, in The Pro­ceed­ings of the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences, found that the hip­pocam­pus of peo­ple in their 60s increased in vol­ume after they’d walked around a track three times per week for a year; in peers who did less aer­o­bic exer­cis­es, the hip­pocam­pus actu­al­ly got small­er.

The upshot of all this research seems to be: Small steps mat­ter. Many of us can bring about pos­i­tive effects on our brains and over­all well-being—without an Olympic effort.

It’s enough to turn a prospec­tive med­i­ta­tor like me into an actu­al one.

––  Jason Marsh is the edi­tor in chief of The Greater Good Mag­a­zine. The Greater Good, based at UC-Berke­ley, is a quar­terly mag­a­zine that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism.

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2 Responses

  1. Abel says:

    Thanks for shar­ing this infor­ma­tion­The group that didn’t receive the MBSR train¬ing didn’t show any of these pos¬i¬tive changes in brain struc­ture. Pre¬vi¬ous research has shown that the struc¬ture of very expe¬ri¬enced medi­a­tors’ brains is dif¬fer¬ent from non-medi­a­tors in cer¬tain regions, but it couldn’t prove that the medi­a­tors didn’t have excep¬tional brains to begin with. The results of this new study offer fur¬ther evi¬dence for the “plas¬tic¬ity” of the brain, mean¬ing it can change its shape over time. That sug¬gests we’re not sim¬ply stuck with the neur­al cards we’re dealt; we can fun¬da¬men¬tally improve our cog¬ni¬tive and emo¬tional capacities.I want to know more about this top­ic.

  2. Sammi Law says:

    I took the step to be ini­ti­at­ed into the prac­tice of Tran­scen­den­tal Medi­a­tion in 1972. The first out­stand­ing thing I noticed was that I had been med­i­tat­ing with­out know­ing it for years.

    Since then my jour­ney has been errat­ic, to pick a word quick­ly; but over­all I feel very strong­ly that there are impor­tant ben­e­fits from the prac­tice.

    What­ev­er pre­con­ceived impres­sions block entry, I sug­gest they be nudged aside or put up on a shelf for a while. There is, pos­si­bly, one tech­nique for med­i­tat­ing for each per­son. I think it is more about – that it is done than how it is done.

    An excel­lent path of approach is via con­cen­tra­tion exer­cis­es and then devel­op­ing a rela­tion­ship with con­tem­pla­tion.

    I’m bank­ing on it being a use­ful skill when my eye­sight fades and my hear­ing wanes. Per­haps, I will become more reg­u­lar then.

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