There are obvious benefits of meditation, such as having a moment to yourself, quieting your mind, unplugging and relaxing. Now new research shows that practicing regular meditation for as little as ten minutes a day could have long-term health benefits and can actually change the makeup of your brain.
Sara Lazar, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital, is behind some of the leading research. In her lab at Harvard Medical School, she and her team study the impact of yoga and meditation on the brain. The findings suggest that practicing regular meditation could help preserve your brain function, including memory and cognitive ability.
How Was This Theory Tested?
Lazar gathered a group of people who had never meditated before and analyzed how their brains changed after participating in an eight-week mindfulness meditation course, in which they learned to meditate and then practice daily.
Lazar studied MRI scans of the participant's brain at the beginning and end of the study, and found that certain areas of every participants’ brain had changed after the eight weeks. Specifically, she discovered that amounts of grey matter had increased in certain regions of their brains and decreased in other regions. Grey matter is the tissue that allows our brains to operate – the more we have, the greater our brain’s ability to function.
In all of the meditators’ brains, Lazar found a significant increase in grey matter in:
- The hippocampus, the area of the brain that supports memory and learning
- The temporo parietal junction, or TPJ, the area that controls creativity, empathy and compassion
Lazar also found that their amygdalas, otherwise known as the ‘fight or flight’ region that controls anxiety, fear and stress, had all decreased in size.
Why Should You Care?
These findings suggest that the reduction in stress and anxiety reported by the meditators was not simply a result of taking more time to relax – there were actual changes taking place in their brains to explain their claims.
In other studies, Lazar has looked at the brains of people who have been meditating for years and compared them to the brains of people who have never meditated. As we age, our brains lose grey matter and the front portion of the brain, which controls IQ and memory, gradually shrinks. Lazar found that long-term meditators are retaining more grey matter, and the front portions of their brains are not shrinking as rapidly as in non-meditators.
How Do You Meditate?
There are many forms of meditation—concentration, mindfulness meditation and tai chi to name just a few. Put simply, meditation is the act of quieting the mind for an extended period of time. If you are a beginner, try these steps to ease into your practice:
- Sit or lie still in a quiet space where you are comfortable
- Close your eyes and try to clear your head of thoughts
- Take notice of your breathing, focusing on how your body moves and expands during each inhale and exhale
- Your mind will naturally wander, especially as a beginner, but the key is to acknowledge the thought, let it go and refocus on your breath every time you get distracted
- Let your body relax as you take focus away from your movements and focus on breath
- Do this breathing exercise for at least ten minutes for the best results
Learning to meditate isn’t difficult, but it requires some discipline and patience. If you’re interested in learning more about meditation, research yoga studios in your local area or download an app like Headspace or Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics. These apps can teach you how to meditate, provide you with guided meditations and even give you the option of working with a mindfulness coach from your phone or tablet.