What we do on a daily basis can affect our brain health. Indeed, thanks to neuroplasticity (the lifelong ability of the brain to change), new brain cells (neurons) and connections between neurons can grow, based on our experiences. Recent studies show that practicing meditation is part of the daily activities that can change the brain.
Meditation has been practiced for millenia. Originally, it was intended to develop spiritual understanding and awareness. Some studies have shown that meditation can reduce stress, promote relaxation, and bolster the immune system. Others suggest that meditation may boost cognitive abilities such as attention.
In terms of brain structures, studies have shown that compared to non-meditators’ brains, meditators’ brains showed more gray matter (increased brain volume) in several regions.
The question then becomes: Does one need to wait several years and become an experienced meditator before experiencing the brain changes and benefits associated with meditation?
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs are often used to reduce stress. They use mindfulness meditation and yoga to teach participants to react non-judgmentally to stressful events, by focusing on their breathing or body or by walking. Mastering these skills enhances the efficiency of top-down control processes that regulate emotional responses, which in turn may lead to a reduction in stress responses.
A recent study showed that 8 weeks only of a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program can change the structure of the brain (Hölzel et al., 2011). Participants in the program meditated for 30 minutes per day for 8 weeks. At the end of the training, the brains of trained participants show changes that were not present in the non-trained participants’ brains. Gray matter was thicker in several parts of the brain involved in learning, memory, empathy and emotion regulation, suggesting that meditation may change the efficiency of these brain functions.
MBSR programs have also been shown to trigger changes in one of the brain structures dealing with emotions: the amygdala (Hötzel, et al., 2010). In this study, the brains of 26 healthy but stressed individuals were scanned before and after an 8-week MBSR intervention. Reported stress was lower after the intervention and this reduction in stress correlated with changes in the volume of an area of the amygdala (decreased density).
In sum, meditation can be considered as a powerful way to train our skills to regulate emotions. The good news is that one doesn’t need to be an experienced meditator before observing benefits, both behaviorally (lower stress) and in the brain (brain cells and connection growth).
Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Evans, K. C., Hoge, E. A., Dusek, J. A., Morgan, L., et al (2010). Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala. Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience, 5 (1): 11-17.
Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191 (1), 36-43.