No one doubts that we can improve our physical health by exercising regularly. We know that if we lift weights we will build muscles. We see them and feel them and know that change is occurring.
Wouldn’t it be nice to know if mental health “exercises” were making tangible, physical changes as well?
Sarah Lazar, an assistant professor at Harvard University and a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, argues that we can know just that. The simple act of sitting and intentionally focusing on the present moment, otherwise known as meditating, can actually change your brain.
In fact, Lazar and her associates found in various studies that meditation, a form of mental exercise, does change “the regions of the brain associated with stress, overall well-being and fluid intelligence.”
Lazar began her research by looking at MRI brain images of people who were long-term practitioners of meditation. She compared these to the brain scans of non-meditators. Lazar’s team found that those who practiced meditation had visible differences in their brain scans. Parts of the cerebral cortex, which is related to memory, attention and decision-making, was thicker in meditators.
In another study, Lazar and her team began with people new to meditation. The study group took part in an eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program. After completing the program, participants reported lower stress levels and a greater sense of well-being. *
Amazingly, the researchers found that the lower stress levels were reflected by a reduction in the size of the amygdala, an area known to fluctuate in conjunction with stress levels. Lazar and company also observed growth in the brain stem, a region of the brain that produces dopamine and serotonin. In other words, people who felt better emotionally were physically different at the end of the study.
In another study, neurologists at the UCLA School of Medicine found that people who meditate have increased gray matter in their orbitofrontal cortex which is associated with emotion. This increase “might reflect meditators’ outstanding abilities linked to emotional self-regulation and behavioral flexibility.” The researchers also observed larger volumes of the hippocampus in people who meditate. These increased areas may explain meditators’ abilities to “cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful behavior.”
In short, researchers have identified multiple physical changes that occur in the brain as a result of meditation practice.
Cerebral Cortex: Found to be thicker in people who meditated regularly over time.
Brain Stem: Linked with “feel good” hormones, the brain stem was larger after eight weeks of meditating.
Amygdala: Associated with stress, researchers observed a reduction in size after the eight weeks of meditation and reported decreases in feeling stress.
Orbitofrontal Cortex: Increased gray matter here is linked to stronger ability to self-regulate emotions in people who meditate.
Hippocampus: Researchers found people who meditated had greater volume which correlated to increased positive emotions.
And these are just some of the physical changes that researchers have studied.
Just as it takes effort and time to build quadriceps and abdominal muscles, developing mental muscles requires the same. Like weight-lifting for your brain, meditation is brain exercise that builds capacity for attention, resistance to distraction or worrying thoughts, and emotional tranquility. We may not be able to see the changes meditation helps achieve, but they are as real as those biceps we’re working on.
*A program like this would be taught by skilled instructors in a group setting, which is an ideal way to be introduced to meditation.
“Meditation Changes the Brain’s Wiring and Mindset, Harvard Studies Show,” HNGN January 16, 2015
Dvorsky, George, “The Science Behind Meditation and Why It Makes You Feel Better,” Gizmodo, April 4, 2013
McKay, Sarah, “The Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation,” The Chopra Center