Can consistent meditation and yoga change your brain?
“Meditation can have a serious impact on your brain long beyond the time when you’re actually sitting and meditating, and this may have a positive impact on your day-to-day living,” said Lazar, an instructor at Harvard Medical School.
Lazar and her team used MRI brain scans to compare the brains of people who practiced insight (vipassana) meditation every day with those of non-meditators.
“These are not monks,” she emphasized, “these are just people who choose to meditate for about 45 minutes a day every day.”
As outlined in the Nov. 15, 2005, issue of NeuroReport, the researchers found that certain areas of the cortex — the outer layer of the brain that contains our thinking, reasoning, and decision-making functions — was significantly thicker in the meditators.
Thickening was also observed in the Insula. Considered “a central switchboard of the brain,” the insula connects the primitive limbic cortex and the more advanced cortex, which is highly developed in primates and humans. Lazar said this region is thought to be “involved in coordinating the brain and the body and the emotions and thoughts … It helps us better make decisions.”
The study suggests this thickening might help counteract the natural thinning of the cortex that occurs as we get older. (The brain’s cortex starts getting thinner from about age 20 and continues to thin throughout life. )
“It’s not a cure-all, but it perhaps can help prevent the loss of some functions,” Lazar said. “One small part of the front of the brain does not get thinner with age… [suggesting] that this part of the brain is not affected by age. This part of the cortex is involved in short term working memory and cognitive decision-making.”
Results also suggest that ongoing meditation would continue the thickening process.
“The thickness is strongly correlated with the amount of experience. So the more they sat, the thicker it was,” Lazar noted.
“The data give credence to some of the claims of long-term meditators and suggests that meditation can play a role in reducing stress, improving emotion regulation and perhaps slowing the effects of aging on brains – slowing the normal decrease in mental agility, ability to learn new things and memory that comes with age.”
Important Links/MBSR Courses
- Mindfullness NYC: Dr Myra Weiss
- University of Minnesota; Center for Spirituality & Healing
- Meditation Roundup
- Mindfulness with Jon Kabat-Zinn
- Metta Bhavana Meditation
In recent years there has been growing interest in using meditation and mindfulness in palliative care, particularly learning to cope with chronic pain and preventing relapse into depression. A BBC primer discusses meditation and provides basic instructions. (BBC: Types of Meditation)