A study conducted by a Harvard affiliated team out of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) came across surprising conclusions regarding the tangible effects of meditation on human brain structure. An 8 week program of mindfulness meditation produced MRI scans for the first time showing clear evidence that meditation produces “massive changes” in brain gray matter.
Study senior author Sara Lazar of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program (as well as a Harvard Medical School instructor in psychology) stated that meditation practitioners aren’t just feeling better. They are literally undergoing changes in brain structure that create the associated sustained boosts in positive and relaxed feelings.
Fellow MGH researcher Sue McGreevey notes that previous studies by Lazar’s group found structural differences in the brains of meditation practitioners compared to those with no prior experience most notably in the thickening of the cerebral cortex; the area responsible for attention and emotional integration. These prior studies, however could not narrow down the structural differences to meditation specifically until now.
This most recent study found that an average of 27 minutes of a daily practice of mindfulness exercises stimulated a significant boost in gray matter density, specifically in the hippocampus; the area of the brain in which self-awareness, compassion, and introspection are associated. Furthermore, this boost of gray matter density in the hippocampus was also directly correlational to a decreased gray matter density in the amygdala; an area of the brain known to be instrumental in regulating anxiety and stress responses. In stark contrast, the control group did not have any changes occur in either region of the brain thus ruling out merely the passage of time as a factor of influence regarding the drastic change in gray matter density fluctuations.
MGH fellow out of Glessen University in Germany, Britta Hölzel, states that neuroscientists are finding far more plasticity in brain structure than anticipated and that most importantly we are now aware from a scientific point of view that we can play a very active role in altering our brain structure to improve our overall well-being and quality of life.