By Eloise King | First published: July 3, 2011
body+soul, The Sunday Telegraph
How meditation can boost brain power in eight weeks.
Scientists have known for a few years that people who meditate have different brain structures from the rest of us. What hasn’t been proven is that it’s actually the meditation that affects our grey matter. Now a landmark study has not only shown that there’s a direct connection, but that meditation can change our brains for the better in just eight weeks – even if we’ve never done it before.
In a study published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging earlier this year, US researchers measured the brains of 16 people who had never meditated before, and then did so again after the group had completed an eight-week meditation program. During that time, the group spent an average of 27 minutes a day practising mindfulness meditation, a particular style of meditation which focuses on non-judgmental awareness of sensations, feelings and states of mind.
After the program, tests done on the group found there was increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with learning and memory, and in other brain structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. There was also a reduction in size of the amygdala, the part of the brain which controls anxiety and stress.
In other words, the silent practice of meditation changes the structure of our brains, boosting the areas that help us focus, remember things and be self-aware, while reducing the areas that can make us feel anxious and stressed.
US-based meditation master Thom Knoles, who is visiting Australia this month, says this research proves what long-term meditators have known for thousands of years.
“Practising meditation helps us see things clearly, have a stronger sense of self and puts the stresses in our lives into proper perspective,” he says.
“Research indicates the effects of meditation are not just that the brain is growing more grey matter, but that the brain is learning how to repair itself organically. It would not be out of the question to assume that the brain is actually regenerating brain cells.”
Many styles, one aim
While the US study proved the beneficial effects of mindfulness meditation, earlier research has shown that meditation in general improves people’s grey matter.
For instance, a UCLA study, published in 2009, used high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to show that long-term meditators who used various meditation techniques all had larger volumes of the hippocampus and areas within the orbitofrontal cortex, the thalamus and the inferior temporal gyrus – regions known for regulating emotions – than those who did not meditate.
Knoles, who teaches Vedic meditation, which uses mantras to focus the mind, agrees that all types of meditation are beneficial for our brains.
“Closing one’s eyes and settling into the simplest form of awareness is a powerful practice, irrespective of the name given to the meditation experience,” he says.
Greater brain power
Meditation quietens the mind and generates feelings of relaxation. The brain then sends signals of blissfulness to the entire body, which then reorganises itself into a restful and stress-free state.
Knoles says each one of us has the same brain capacity. The question is: what are we training our brain to do?
“Instead of having brain matter generated through states of stress, meditation provides the brain with blissful experiences that increase the capability in every area,” he says. “What we see is people become more creative, increasing their learning ability and intelligence, and taking on a larger life perspective. Meditation is not just a psychological or mood-enhancing tool but a way to grow and access more brain power.”
Try this five-minute mindfulness meditation practice.
- Sit on the floor or on a chair. Make sure your back is straight and arms relaxed. Alternatively, lie on the floor.
- Bring your attention to your breath for one minute. Feel your belly rise and fall.
- Widen your attention to include all your bodily sensations and any thoughts or feelings.
- Try to be a neutral observer of your thoughts. If you find yourself swept up in a train of thought, return to focusing on your breath.