For those who are skeptical about whether or not contemplative practices like meditation are worth it, or if they’ve been verified by empirical research, do read on.
I’ve written before on the benefits of meditation practices like Self-Compassion and RAIN; But, I’ve yet to share with readers the exact scientific investigations that back up claims about what’s going on regarding changing structures in the brain. Well, buckle in and let’s see what some of the latest research findings say about these ancient practices.
Meet Sarah Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, who was one of the principal investigators of the research done by Massachusetts General Hospital studying how mindfulness meditation training changes brain structure in just eight weeks.
The first study – Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness – Lazar and colleagues conducted looked at long-term meditators vs. a control group.
Lazar: “We found long-term meditators have an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex. Which makes sense. When you’re mindful, you’re paying attention to your breathing, to sounds, to the present moment experience, and shutting cognition down. It stands to reason your senses would be enhanced.”
Lazar: “We also found they had more gray matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and executive decision making. So the first question was, well, maybe the people with more gray matter in the study had more gray matter before they started meditating. So we did a second study” – Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. “We took people who’d never meditated before, and put one group through an eight-week mindfulness- based stress reduction program.
We found differences in brain volume after eight weeks in five different regions in the brains of the two groups. In the group that learned meditation, we found thickening in four regions:
- The primary difference, we found in the posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self relevance.
- The left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation.
- The temporo parietal junction, or TPJ, which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion.
- An area of the brainstem called the Pons, where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.
The amygdala, the fight or flight part of the brain which is important for anxiety, fear and stress in general; That area got smaller in the group that went through the mindfulness-based stress reduction program. The change in the amygdala was also correlated to a reduction in stress levels.”
To me, this research makes so much sense when people report feeling like they can be kinder to themselves, and more accepting of the world around them. What’s being practiced in the 8-week mindfulness bootcamp is the ability to witness and accept; To be aware of sensations in the present moment and calm them down through acceptance.
When the mind is overwhelmed, it can easily wander and get lost in the story that the ego is telling. When these skills are practiced every day (regularly) it makes sense that this mental training would have a structural payoff; In the same way that physical strengthening and conditioning produces physical changes that are measurable as well.
If you want to become a better decision maker, grow your ability to regulate difficult emotions, be kinder to yourself, less judgmental, more self-compassionate, then by all means . . . change your mind.
This article quotes excerpts originally published on May 26 2015 in Brigid Schulte‘s article in The Washington Post entitled: Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brain
Robin S. Smith, MS, LCMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in clinical practice in Bethesda MD. As an MFT, he specializes in relationship issues for couples, families, and individuals, for improved quality of life. His areas of expertise include: transition to parenthood for new and expecting parents, infidelity, sex and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, and trauma. Robin has given talks to various groups including hospital administrators, graduate students, fellow psychotherapists, and child birth educators. He is the primary contributor to The Couple and Family Clinic Blog.