Neuroimaging shows that meditation changes the brain for the better

A new study documents how meditation alters the brain's gray matter.


Meditation is nothing new: It’s a fixture of many religions, and has been practice for thousands of years. However, scientific understanding of how meditation changes the body is ever-increasing. Some studies indicate that meditation can physically change the brain and body, capable of reducing blood pressure, symptoms of anxiety and depression, and insomnia.

But it’s perhaps the changes to the brain that meditation can induce that are the most striking.

In 2011, researchers reported in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging that eight-weeks of engaging in an average of 27 minutes a day of meditation results in differences in the brain. The study included two groups of people who had never meditated any more. One continued to not meditate, while the other was put into a mindfulness-based stress reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness.

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Magnetic resonance (MR) images were taken of the brain structure of the 16 participants two weeks before and two weeks after they took part in the program, which included meditation that focused on non-judgemental awareness of sensations, feelings, and the state of their mind. These brain scans revealed that the group that meditated, compared to the group that did not, had increased gray-matter density in the brain’s hippocampus and decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala.

Interestingly, the amygdala interacts with the body’s “fight-or-flight” response while the hippocampus is involved with introspection, learning, and memory.

Amishi Jha, a neuroscientist who was not a part of this study, told The Harvard Gazette that these results shed “light on the mechanism of action of mindfulness-based training,” showing that stress can not only be reduced after eight weeks of this training but also that training corresponds to structural changes in the brain.

Other work by the same team has also found that meditation causes 50-year old meditators to have the same amount of gray matter as 25-year olds. And while other researchers are careful to say that meditation isn’t some magic cure for one’s problems, it does seem like it’s worth a shot.

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