Harvard study unveils what meditation literally does to the brain

In Mind & Body, Science & Technology
Scroll this

Research shows that meditation physically changes the brain

You have heard of the plasticity of the brain – the brain’s ability to alter its structure through forming new neurological connections. What is surprising, is that meditation – essentially sitting still and paying no attention to any arising thoughts – a seemingly non-active state, also changes the physical structure of the brain. And the change can happen in a short time – only eight weeks.

What we have heard from yogis and gurus over the ages, are now being confirmed by science and its cutting-edge tools. In 2011, Sara Lazar and her team at Harvard conducted an eight-week study that involved mindfulness meditation.

The study involved 16 study participants who did 30 minutes of mindfulness exercises per day over a period of eight weeks. The mindfulness practices involved listening to guided meditations and practicing not to judge sensations, feelings or general state of mind. MRI were taken two weeks prior to the study and after it was completed.

The MRI revealed that eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) increases the cortical thickness in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, and empathy.

At the same time a decrease was measured in the physical mass of the amygdala, the area of the brain associated with fear, anxiety and stress.

People who meditate have long said that the benefits of meditation, like feeling less stressed and in a better mood, persist long after their meditation practice is over. In this study participants had similar experiences which correlated with decreased grey mass density in the amygdala.  So, their reports of improved well-being was literally borne out by changes in the brain. The MRI of the control group showed no such changes, indicating that the changes were not merely due to the passage of time.

Previous studies taken further

Previous studies by Lazar and her team and other researchers had already found structural differences between the brains of people who practice mediation on a regular basis and those who don’t meditate. They knew that experienced meditation practitioners showed a thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotional integration, but this latest study proofed that the physical changes to the brain were in fact a result of meditation.

Why does this matter?

We can take advantage of mindfulness practices like meditation. Now that we understand more about the malleable qualities of the brain, we can decide to improve our own well-being by taking the time to sit somewhere quietly for a few minutes every day and contemplate absolutely nothing.