Why meditation can build a better brain

Sometimes you never realize just how simple it may be to make meaningful changes to the part of your body we use the most – our brain. 

A 2011 study conducted by Harvard-affiliated researchers discovered meditation may be the key to producing powerful changes over time in our brain’s gray matter.  What prompted the researchers to look into the effects meditation may have on building a better brain was previous studies finding the brains of experienced meditation practitioners had structural differences from brains of individuals who had never practiced meditation.  However, it had not been documented that the structural differences could be attributed to meditation.

Meditation study

Two weeks before the study began MRI scans were conducted of the participants in the meditation group and again at the end of the study. MRI scans were also taken of participants who were part of a control group not participating in the meditation program.

A total of 16 participants went through an 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program were they were given daily guided meditations and then recorded how much time they spent on the meditations each day.  An average of 27 minutes each day was spent doing mindful meditation practices by the meditating participants.

Study results of why meditation may work

After the 8-week study, participants filled out a mindfulness questionnaire.  All participants in the meditation group expressed feeling less stress which positively affected the amygdala, the center of the brain helping the body deal with stress and anxiety. Because the body’s stress response had been reduced significantly during the two month study, this area of the brain showed less gray matter. 

An area of the brain in the participants who meditated showing increased gray matter and stronger connections was the hippocampus, the center of the brain dealing with learning, attention, awareness, compassion, introspection, and memory. 

What is interesting to note is that none of the participants in the control group who had not participated in meditation had any changes in their brains.

Applying results to everyday life

This study has many implications that could open doors to other possibilities in protecting and preserving our brains.  In just 8 weeks, structural changes within the brain using meditation was found.  This could mean meditation could be useful for individuals suffering from conditions such as post-traumatic stress syndrome.  The reduction of the amygdala signifies a reduction in the body’s stress response, as expressed by the participants, in elevated feelings of relaxation and stress reduction.  As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex can thicken.  This is a positive change since the pre-frontal cortex is the decision making part of our brain and also in charge of concentration and awareness. 

Our brains can become better through consistent meditation helping to build brain cells.  Meditation can also increase gray matter while helping the brain respond better to stress, improve concentration, memory, and learning.