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16250Meditation found to increase brain size

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  • medit8ionsociety
    Jun 24, 2008
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      Meditation found to increase brain size

      People who meditate grow bigger brains than
      those who don't. Researchers at Harvard, Yale,
      and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
      have found the first evidence that meditation
      can alter the physical structure of our brains.
      Brain scans they conducted reveal that
      experienced meditators boasted increased thickness
      in parts of the brain that deal with attention
      and processing sensory input.

      In one area of gray matter, the thickening
      turns out to be more pronounced in older than
      in younger people. That's intriguing because
      those sections of the human cortex, or thinking
      cap, normally get thinner as we age.

      "Our data suggest that meditation practice
      can promote cortical plasticity in adults in
      areas important for cognitive and emotional
      processing and well-being," says Sara Lazar,
      leader of the study and a psychologist at Harvard
      Medical School. "These findings are consistent
      with other studies that demonstrated increased
      thickness of music areas in the brains of musicians,
      and visual and motor areas in the brains of jugglers.
      In other words, the structure of an adult brain
      can change in response to repeated practice."

      The researchers compared brain scans of 20
      experienced meditators with those of 15 nonmeditators.
      Four of the former taught meditation or yoga,
      but they were not monks living in seclusion. The
      rest worked in careers such as law, health care,
      and journalism. All the participants were white.
      During scanning, the meditators meditated; the
      others just relaxed and thought about whatever they wanted.

      Meditators did Buddhist "insight meditation,"
      which focuses on whatever is there, like noise or
      body sensations. It doesn't involve "om," other
      mantras, or chanting.

      "The goal is to pay attention to sensory experience,
      rather than to your thoughts about the sensory
      experience," Lazar explains. "For example, if you
      suddenly hear a noise, you just listen to it rather
      than thinking about it. If your leg falls asleep,
      you just notice the physical sensations. If nothing
      is there, you pay attention to your breathing."
      Successful meditators get used to not thinking or
      elaborating things in their mind.

      Study participants meditated an average of about
      40 minutes a day. Some had been doing it for only a
      year, others for decades. Depth of the meditation
      was measured by the slowing of breathing rates.
      Those most deeply involved in the meditation showed
      the greatest changes in brain structure. "This
      strongly suggests," Lazar concludes, "that the
      differences in brain structure were caused by
      the meditation, rather than that differences in
      brain thickness got them into meditation in the
      first place."

      Lazar took up meditation about 10 years ago and
      now practices insight meditation about three times
      a week. At first she was not sure it would work.
      But "I have definitely experienced beneficial changes,"
      she says. "It reduces stress [and] increases my
      clarity of thought and my tolerance for staying
      focused in difficult situations."


      Controlling random thoughts

      Insight meditation can be practiced anytime, a
      nywhere. "People who do it quickly realize that
      much of what goes on in their heads involves
      random thoughts that often have little substance,"
      Lazar comments. "The goal is not so much to
      'empty' your head, but to not get caught up in
      random thoughts that pop into consciousness."

      She uses this example: Facing an important deadline,
      people tend to worry about what will happen if
      they miss it, or if the end product will be good
      enough to suit the boss. You can drive yourself
      crazy with unproductive "what if" worry. "If,
      instead, you focus on the present moment, on
      what needs to be done and what is happening right
      now, then much of the feeling of stress goes away,
      " Lazar says. "Feelings become less obstructive
      and more motivational."

      The increased thickness of gray matter is not
      very much, 4 to 8 thousandths of an inch. "These
      increases are proportional to the time a person
      has been meditating during their lives," Lazar
      notes. "This suggests that the thickness differences
      are acquired through extensive practice and not
      simply due to differences between meditators and
      nonmeditators."

      As small as they are, you can bet those differences
      are going to lead to lots more studies to find out
      just what is going on and how meditation might
      better be used to improve health and well-being,
      and even slow aging.

      More basic questions need to be answered. What
      causes the increased thickness? Does meditation
      produce more connections between brain cells, or
      more blood vessels? How does increased brain
      thickness influence daily behavior? Does it promote
      increased communication between intellectual and
      emotional areas of the brain?

      To get answers, larger studies are planned at
      Massachusetts General Hospital, the Harvard-affiliated
      facility where Lazar is a research scientist and
      where these first studies were done. That work included
      only 20 meditators and their brains were scanned
      only once.

      "The results were very encouraging," Lazar remarks.
      "But further research needs to be done using a
      larger number of people and testing them multiple
      times. We also need to examine their brains both
      before and after learning to meditate. Our group
      is currently planning to do this. Eventually, such
      research should reveal more about the function of
      the thickening; that is, how it affects emotions
      and knowing in terms of both awareness and judgment."

      Slowing aging?

      Since this type of meditation counteracts the
      natural thinning of the thinking surface of the
      brain, could it play a role in slowing - even
      reversing - aging? That could really be mind-boggling
      in the most positive sense.

      Lazar is cautious in her answer. "Our data suggest
      that one small bit of brain appears to have a slower
      rate of cortical thinning, so meditation may help
      slow some aspects of cognitive aging," she agrees.
      "But it's important to remember that monks and yogis
      suffer from the same ailments as the rest of us.
      They get old and die, too. However, they do claim
      to enjoy an increased capacity for attention and memory."

      Source: Harvard University (By William J. Cromie)