Most people are aware that meditation has a number of benefits: lower blood pressure, reduced stress, and a decrease in tension-related pain are just a few of these benefits.
But while the psychological benefits of meditation have long been acknowledged, scientists were still somewhat in the dark about the specifics of how meditation affects the brain. Until now, that is.
Scientists from Harvard University just published a study that examined the effects of meditation on the physical structures of the brain using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Sara Lazar, the senior author of the study, is a professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and a researcher at the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program. She said,
“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day. This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”
Previous studies have shown that there are structural differences between the brains of people who meditate regularly and those who don’t. However, this study is the first to demonstrate that those differences are the direct result of meditation.
The study participants spent an average of 27 minutes a day meditating and practicing “mindfulness exercises” for a period of eight weeks. Throughout the process, their brains were regularly imaged using MRI machines.
The analysis of these images found that the meditation led to,
“…increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.”
The study also found a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region of the brain closely associated with stress and anxiety. None of these changes occurred in the control group, showing that the changes were indeed a direct result of the meditation.
Britta Hölzel, a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany, is another one of the study’s primary authors. She had this to say about the findings:
“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.”
Read more from the Harvard Gazette.