How Meditation Can Change Your Brain


Over the last ten years, researchers and scientists have been uncovering the physiological benefits of meditation on the brain and the body, benefits that practitioners have understood for thousands of years and western scientists are now proving.  This research quantifies and scientifically demonstrates the amazing benefits of meditation practices that can improve our overall health and well-being. A new Harvard study using MRIs shows that meditation literally builds the brain's gray matter.  In this study, researchers found that daily mindfulness practices resulted in a major increase in gray matter density in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection, and those same practices decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress.  In the November 2014 issue of Scientific American, entitled The Neuroscience of Meditation - How it Changes the Brain, Boosting Focus and Easing Stress,  researchers also found that experienced meditators had a greater volume of brain tissue in their prefrontal cortex and insula, which both play a role in executive functioning and decision making, as well as processing attention, sensory information and internal bodily sensations.

Not only does meditation affect the brain, it may also play a crucial role in our overall health.   Researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD sifted through nearly 19,000 meditation studies, and found that mindfulness meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain.  (Click here for more information on this study)   In addition, scientists have found evidence that meditation and its positive psychological effects boost immunity, and reduce inflammation and other signs of stress in the body, even those occurring on a molecular level.  A recent study at UCLA - Davis looked at the effect meditation practices have in the body on a molecular level.  The enzyme telomerase is associated with the long-term health of cells in the body.  Telomeres are sequences of DNA at the end of chromosomes that tend to get shorter every time a cell divides. When telomeres drop below a critical length, the cell can no longer divide properly and eventually dies.  One of the central mechanisms responsible for the aging of cells is the shortening of telomeres. The enzyme, telomerase, can rebuild and lengthen telomeres.   Researchers found that experienced meditators, those showing the least physiological signs of stress on the body,  also had higher "telomerase" activity, suggesting that mindfulness meditation training might actually slow down the process of cellular aging and improve our overall health on a cellular level.

This research is welcome and fascinating, and we love to learn about the science and share it with you.  We look forward to more research to come, but for those who practice mindfulness meditation, we don't need to be convinced, we already feel the great benefits of these ancient contemplative practices.

Don’t Forget to Exercise Your Brain


Most of us make time each week to workout at the gym, attend a yoga class, or go for a run.  Inspired by the effects of aging on our bodies, we are compelled to work out to stay healthy and fit.  As we age, our metabolism slows down, our energy levels wane, and we notice sagging and wrinkles in areas that shouldn’t sag or wrinkle.  These physical changes inspire us to hit the gym to combat these signs of aging. Not only do our bodies show the signs of aging, so do our brains.  Although brain aging is not visible, and therefore less apparent, our brains shrink or atrophy as we age, and we lose our memory and our thinking abilities.  But there is hope.  New studies of the brain and aging have shown evidence that we can slow down brain aging and even strengthen our brains with the age-old practice of meditation.

Exciting research now reveals that the way we use our brain and care for it can enhance its neuroplasticity.  Scientists use to believe that the human brain was a relatively static organ.  But emerging studies reveal that we can actually change our brain structure throughout our life.  Changes in behavior, environment and neural processes, can actually alter the neural pathways and synapses in our brain, changing the way our brain functions.   Exciting new scientific studies, such as one conducted by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, use MRI scans to document before and after changes in the brain associated with mindfulness meditation.  After eight weeks, the MRI scans revealed an increased density in areas of the brain associated with memory, self-awareness and compassion, and decreases in the amygdala, which is associated with fear and stress.

I recently attended the first Advances in Meditation Research Conference, where neuroscientists spoke of their recent research in which they studied the neurological effects of meditation on the brain.  The results were inspiring.  Although much of the discussion was highly scientific and too technical for my brain to fully comprehend, their conclusions were quite clear that meditation can have a positive effect on our brains.   At the conference, researchers discussed their recent studies that showed evidence that meditation practices slow down the natural course of aging, effectively treat the onset of neurodegenerative diseases, such as dementia and alzheimers, and increase brain function in their test cases.

Mindfulness meditation, which requires focused attention for a prolonged period of time, may sound easy, but it requires tremendous effort and mental discipline.  Anyone who has tried sitting quietly for twenty minutes knows that it is hard work.  Just like going to the gym or running a few miles, meditation is difficult at first.  Over time, however, that hard work pays off.  Just like building biceps, we can strengthen our brain and slow down the effects of aging by committing to meditation and mindfulness excercises that are proving to be incredibly beneficial.  So what are you waiting for?