Meditation Changes Brain Structure
The physical and mental health benefits of meditation are truly remarkable; scientific and scholarly research tells us why and how meditation can be a very powerful tool in addressing a vast number of issues. Treatment of depression is one area researchers are exploring. Currently, people who suffer from chronic depression are faced with a wide range of possible treatments including talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, electroconvulsive therapy, and antidepressant medications. These remedies, while effective for many patients, do not work for everyone. The good news is, research has shown that mindfulness meditation can provide some relief to those battling persistent depression. In recent years, neuroscientists have been studying meditation's effects on the brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which takes images of the brain and records brain activity. These studies have demonstrated that a sustained, consistent meditation practice can actually change the structure of the brain.
Ten years ago, a team at Harvard found that eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for 30 minutes a day increased the volume of gray matter in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with learning and memory. (Research has shown that a small hippocampus has been linked to chronic depression.) In addition, regions of the brain which govern attention, regulation of emotions, and sensory processing were thicker in meditation participants than in the control group.
Conversely, there was a decrease in the volume and activity of the amygdala, the part of the brain that drives the so-called “fight or flight” reaction and controls the body's fear and stress responses. The amygdala triggers the adrenal glands to release the stress hormone cortisol in response to fear and perceived danger; reduced activity in the amygdala means lower stress levels. Not surprisingly, the participants reported feeling lower levels of stress and anxiety, (stress and anxiety are major triggers of depression) along with improvements in their sense of psychological well-being. The implication is clear - meditation not only changes the brain, but it changes how we feel and how we perceive the world.
Dr. John W. Denninger, director of research at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, explained it this way: "Meditation trains the brain to achieve sustained focus, and to return to that focus when negative thinking, emotions, and physical sensations intrude — which happens a lot when you feel stressed and anxious." The simple act of observing negative or stressful thoughts and feelings objectively and without judgement, and realizing that you don't have to act on them or identify with them, has a powerful effect on the brain over time.
A recent study by researchers at Binghamton University reaffirmed the benefits of meditation. This study focused on cognition, the process by which knowledge and understanding is developed in the mind. Researchers trained a group of students to meditate and scanned the students' brains at the beginning of the study and again after eight weeks of consistent meditation practice. The resulting images showed that the meditation training led to faster switching between the brain's two states of consciousness – the default mode network (DMN) and the dorsal attention network (DAN). The DMN is active when we are awake but not focusing on any particular task – a state that's sometimes referred to as wakeful rest. It is engaged when we are daydreaming, thinking about ourselves or others, or remembering the past or planning for the future. The DAN is externally directed, engaging for tasks that demand more attention and focus like studying or learning an instrument. Faster switching between these two networks of the brain means that it is easier to come to attention when the mind is wandering and it takes less effort to maintain attention and focus. This skill is very helpful for the absorption and retention of information.
The research is clear - meditating makes you happier and smarter!