Meditation: A Brain-Changer

A mass of scientific studies over the last several decades have shown that the practice of meditation can actually change the gray matter of the brain. Sara Lazar’s team at Harvard U found that 8 weeks of meditation was found to shrink the amagdala (fight or flight region – responsible for fear, stress and anxiety) and thicken the hippocampus (which governs learning and memory) and areas of the brain which regulate emotion and self-referential (“me” center) processing — reducing the activity in the “me” center and enhancing connectivity between brain regions.

Jon Kabat-Zinn at U Mass founded its Center for Mindfulness and in 1979 developed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program (now available all over the country), which has rendered heaps of evidence that meditation equips its practitioners with the ability to use their innate resources and abilities to respond more effectively to stress, pain and illness for conditions, including:

  • coronary artery disease
  • hypertension
  • cancer
  • chronic pain
  • fibromyalgia
  • di- abetes type 1
  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • anxiety
  • asthma/respiratory disorders
  • psoriasis
  • depression
  • headache
  • multiple sclerosis
  • health-related quality of life

Researcher Madhav Goyal and his team at Johns Hopkins studied the relationship between mindfulness meditation and its ability to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and pain. They found that the effect size of meditation was the same as for antidepressants.

Meditation is found to improve attention and concentration.  A couple weeks of meditation training helped people’s focus and memory during the verbal reasoning section of the GRE.  A UCLA study found that long-term meditators (an average of 20 years) had better-preserved the aging brain.  Yale U found that mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the default mode network (DMN), the brain network responsible for mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts – aka “monkey mind.”  Mind-wandering is typically associated with being less happy, ruminating, and worrying about the past and future. Meditation, through its quieting effect on the DMN, slows the monkey mind. Even when it starts to wander, the new connections that form mean meditators can more quickly snap out of it.

Given its effects on the self-control regions of the brain, meditation can be very effective in aiding recovery from addiction.  People who learned mindfulness were many times more likely to have quit smoking during the American Lung Association’s freedom from smoking (FFS) program, since meditation helps them “decouple” the state of craving from the act of smoking – allowing them to ride out the wave of craving until it passes.

Studies have confirmed the cognitive and emotional benefits of meditation for schoolchildren, showing a decrease in suspensions and increase in GPA and attendance.  Some schools are bringing meditation and yoga to school kids, who are dealing with the usual stressors at school, in addition to oft-time additional stress and trauma outside of school, where meditation has been shown to reduce student aggression and increase their ability to pay attention. Teachers who meditate show lower blood pressure, depression, and negative emotion, and greater compassion and empathy.  Likewise, meditation is being brought into the health care arena, helping practitioners cope with stress, reduce stress and anxiety, connect with patients and increase compassion. Inmates in prisons who meditate showed reduction in anger, hostility and mood disturbances, helping with rehabilitation and reintegration.  Veterans who meditated experienced reduced symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and meditation helped patients in obesity clinics sustain healthier eating habits, savor food, and lose weight.

Who said meditation is only for monks? It could change your brain, your experience of life + you.

(Contact me for full citations and resources.)

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