Sara Lazar, at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, have made several studies on how meditation affects the brain. Studies show that practicing meditation not only stimulates the activity in the brain, but actually has an impact on its physical structure.
The researcher behind this study, Sara Lazar, was working out for the Boston marathon when she was ordered by her physiotherapist to focus on her stretching. She tried yoga and after some time started to notice a whole bunch of positive effects.
- The yoga teacher claimed that yoga and meditation could improve my compassion and open up my heart, Sara Lazar says. I thought “sure”. But eventually I actually noticed that I became calmer, and better at managing difficult situations. I also became more open-hearted and could easier see things from other people’s perspective. So I became interested to understand how it works.
This is how the study was conducted
In the first study, 20 people who regularly meditated were compared to a control group. They discovered that the people who meditated a lot had an increased substance of grey matter - a large part of the central nervous system that treats a lot of the information we take in - in the insular lobe and in the auditive and sensory cerebral cortex. Maybe it’s not so surprising, considering that when you're fully present, you pay attention to your breathing, the sounds around you and the present moment. They also found that the people who were used to meditate have more grey matter in the front cerebral cortex, that is linked to working memory and decision-making.
We know that our cerebral cortex shrinks when we get older – for instance it becomes harder to remember certain things. However, according to the study, 50 year olds who meditate have as much grey matter in the cerebral cortex as a 25-year old.
In the second study they wanted to find out if the people with more grey matter had it before they started to meditate. The study only included people who never meditated before. They were divided into two groups, one control group and one group who participated in a 8-week mindfulness program. The people in the mindfulness group joined a meditation class every week. They were also encouraged to meditate at home for 40 minutes every day, with the help of a sound file.
After 8 weeks, the researchers could see changes in the five different parts of the brain. They saw in the people in the mindfulness group that the volume of the brain had grown in four areas. The biggest difference were seen in the back part of the cingulate cortex in the brains middle part, that receives signals from the limbic system for emotions, values and motivation. The left hippocampus, which is linked to learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation, had become bigger. Hence, even areas associated with perspective taking, empathy, compassion as well as an area in the brain stem where a lot of regulating neurotransmitters are produced.
Also amygdala, the fight-or-flight response of the brain, that is important in regards to anxiety, fear and stress in general, changed in the group who meditated – it shrank.
Read more about the studies here!