Meditation found to increase brain size
- 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
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
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
"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."
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)