So you thought that meditation was some mumbo-jumbo only practiced by ascetics or weird people with long beards?
Are you one of those who scoffs at the idea of closing your eyes and thinking nothing? Has meditation always sounded like a hokum practice to you, let alone having any significant affect on brain?
Well, one of the world’s top universities, Harvard carried out a research to find out effects of meditation on the brain.
And guess what did they find?
Yes, meditation changes your brain structure and for good, if you are wondering!
A team of Harvard researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) carried out a study on participants in an 8-week program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness.
During this program, the participants meditated for 27 minutes per day on an average. Additionally, there was a control group as well who did not meditate at all during the period.
Like many others who meditate regularly, the participants did report a feeling of calm and peace after meditation practice.
However, what researchers wanted to find was if meditation changes brain structure. So, they took MRI Images of brains of the participants as well as the control group two weeks before and after the program. And what did MRI images show?
So, did Meditation Really Change Brain Structure in Participants?
The lead researcher, Sara Lazar, who is a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School reports that there was a change in the brain volume of meditation people group.
This change was found in five different regions of the brain:
1. Thickening of Posterior Cingulate
What this means- less mind wandering and self-relevance. This means you are able to focus in an effective manner rather than finding your mind distract and wander in unnecessary stuff.
2. Increase of gray matter or cortical thickness in left hippocampus
This region is responsible for memory and learning functions of your brain. This is the region which is most affected by stress and stress related disorders like depressions or PTSD. So, within just eight weeks of mindfulness practice, you can start to change your brain as you improve your memory and learning abilities with less anxiety and depression.
3. Increase in temporo-parietal junction
What this means is that you become more aware and introspective of your thoughts and actions. You become more compassionate and open-hearted to other people without taking things personally.
4. Thickening of a brain stem area called Pons,
This area is associated with regulatory neurotransmitters. As you begin to meditate regularly, you can expect to make clear, level-headed decisions with calm and peace as opposed to anxiety-based reactions.
5. Reduction in amygdala
When you meditate, a region of your brain called amygdala shrinks in size. This region is responsible for the flight and fight response when you face stressful situations. When you do meditation regularly, you take control of this automatic response and are able to respond in a calm manner with clear thinking.
There was also an increase in the gray matter in the region of the brain called hypothalamus. Moreover, grey matter also increased in other regions associated with introspection, self-awareness, and compassion. You can read the detailed research and findings here.
Interestingly, these effects were only present in the brain regions of meditators and the control group did not have any changes in their brain structures.
Watch Sara Lazar talk about her findings in her TED talk:
What this means is that with a regular meditation practice can literally change your brain structure. This is due to an increase in the gray matter in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain which is associated with decision making and thinking process.
You are able to control your emotions and become less reactive to stressful situations. Stress, after all, is not bad in itself. It is your response to stressful situations which make it bad!
So, you see that meditation is not just a tool for yogis and ascetics to attain nirvana or something like. In fact, that is one of the biggest meditation myths you can believe that can prevent you from developing a regular meditation habit.
How Meditation Affects Brain And Ultimately You
Protects Your Aging Brain
Another study by UCLA researchers revealed that people who have been meditating longer, say 15-20 years of so, experience less loss of gray matter in their brain as they age.
In fact, the gray matter was throughout the volume of the brain as compared to few regions. On the other hand, non-meditators experienced a significant decline in their brain health as they aged.
Increased Psychological Well-Being
Since regular meditation habit affects crucial regions of the brain, it automatically leads to a better mood, increased clarity, reduced stress, and in many cases, reduction in depression symptoms as well.
School children can benefit the most
If I go deeper, meditation is a brilliant tool to make use of neuroplasticity of the brain. In simple words, neuroplasticity means you can rewire your brain with awareness, action, and repetition to learn new skills and develop positive habits.
Introducing meditation at an early age to kids can help them develop valuable habits while decreasing their stress at the same time (if you think kids don’t have any stress, you may have absolutely no idea what today’s kids go through! ).
In fact, many schools have already started recognizing the importance of meditation for brain power in kids. One such school called Robert Coleman sends kids to mindful moment room and promote meditation as a detention activity!
To Sum up:
Meditation is a scientifically proven technique that can help you a lot in your day to day life. Whether you are a student or a businessman, a housewife or a corporate woman, a 21-year-old college going guy or 60-year-old retired person, incorporating a daily meditation habit can help you in many ways.
Medical science has begun to recognize what Eastern spirituality has been advocating for years! And this Harvard research on meditation effects on brain once again reiterates this fact.
If you are looking to start a meditation habit, you can start with mindfulness meditation or can go on a meditation retreat such as a 10-day free vipassana meditation camp.
Personally, my journey with meditation started when I went on a similar retreat and had an incredible experience of vipassana meditation. Feel free to comment below if you have any queries or want to share your personal experience of meditation!