Meditation increases brain size & function(s)! Research from Harvard, Massachussets and Yale USA.
Meditation increases brain size and function(s)!
Far from being simply a relaxed state, meditation is a period of heightened activity in the brain—one that can actually reshape your brain. People as diverse as David Lynch and the Dalai Lama have touted the benefits of meditation, claiming that it can increase attention, combat stress, foster compassion, and boost health.
In the past two decades, neuroscientists have begun to understand the biological substrates of these claims. Research suggests that long-term meditation increases the orbitofrontal cortex, the hippocampus, and the thalamus, potentially increasing one’s capacity for attention as well as compassion.
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.”
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