Last week, a UCLA study found that long-term meditators had better preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged. Participants who had meditated for an average of 20 years had more grey matter volume throughout the brain, although older meditators still had some volume loss compared to younger meditators, it was not as pronounced as that of non-meditators. We expected rather small, discrete localised effects in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditation, said study author Florian Kurth. Instead, what we actually observed was a generalised effect of meditation that encompassed regions of the whole brain.
Studies have shown that it only takes eight weeks to change the shape of the brain, including an increase in grey matter volume. Grey matter is found in the central nervous system and makes up the bulk of the brain's neuronal cell bodies. This type of tissue is especially important in the areas responsible for muscle control, sensory perception, emotion, memory, decision-making and self-control. The benefits of meditation can be felt as soon as after a single session.
Some studies have shown an increase in mood, a decrease in stress and a reduction in blood pressure after a single session. Some benefits, such as increased concentration and decreased stress, may be experienced after a few weeks and others take longer to develop. Neuroimaging studies have shown that meditation actually changes the shape of the brain (see "How meditation works") after 8 weeks. In a study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (advance issue), Yi-Yuan Tang, Michael Posner and colleagues randomly assigned University of Oregon undergraduates with no meditation experience to participate in either an integrative mind-body training (IBMT) meditation programme or a relaxation programme.
In total, the students completed 11 hours of training, divided into 30-minute sessions over the course of a month. IBMT consists of body relaxation, mental imagery and mindfulness training guided by a trainer and an assistive CD. This method of meditation emphasises a state of restful alertness. The idea is to achieve a high degree of awareness of body and mind, so that unwanted thoughts are less likely to co-opt your attention and distract you.
Researchers found that, after just 11 hours of meditation training, changes (for the better) occurred in a white matter tract that connects the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) to other structures in the brain. The ACC is part of a network of brain regions involved in regulating our emotions, thoughts and behaviours. Simply put, after meditation training, the integrity and effectiveness of the connections to the ACC, an important player in our ability to regulate our thoughts, behaviours and emotions, improved. Phil Jackson, coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, became known when he coached Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls to several successive championships for advocating meditation practices as a means of improving his players' performance.
Successful individuals, from Goldman Sachs board members to Ford Motor Company chairman William Ford, have also touted the benefits of meditation practices in their daily and working lives. These powerful sports and business figures often rely on their intuition about the psychological benefits of their practice but, as I have just described, brain research now suggests that these intuitions are accurate. According to a new meta-analysis of all existing studies on the subject, simple mindfulness meditation has profound physical effects on the brain in just eight weeks. Everyone from Anderson Cooper and Congressman Tim Ryan to companies like Google, Apple and Target are integrating meditation into their programmes.
Research on meditation and the brain has been pouring in for several years now, with new studies emerging every week that illustrate some new benefit of meditation. The practice appears to have an incredible range of neurological benefits, from changes in grey matter volume to reduced activity in the brain's "I-centres" to improved connectivity between brain regions. In the 1970s, when transcendental meditation became very popular, Herbert Benson, a professor at Harvard Medical School and then Beth Israel Hospital, explored what he called "the relaxation response", identifying it as the common, functional attribute of transcendental meditation, yoga and other forms of meditation, including deep religious prayer. Clarity, calmness and improved concentration are some of the potential psychological benefits of meditation that come to light relatively quickly.
There is a newer sub-genre of meditation, mentioned above, called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness (now available nationwide), which aims to reduce a person's stress level, physically and mentally. There is growing interest on the part of educators and researchers in bringing meditation and yoga to school-aged children, who face the usual stressors within school and often additional stress and trauma outside of school. This study also suggests that meditation may help alleviate symptoms of anxiety, although only in combination with other treatments. This suggests that those who meditate can curb their wandering thoughts better than those who do not.
So meditation not only changed the participants' brain structures, it also changed how they felt.