Science has long been on the hunt for tools and techniques to improve brain function. Millions of man-hours have been invested into research to enhance cognitive abilities, sharpen focus, expand memory capacity, increase brain activity, and boost overall function. One study may have found one more trick to boosting brain capabilities: just eight weeks of mindfulness meditation.
A team of researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital had previously discovered that there were “structural differences between the brains of experienced meditation practitioners and individuals with no history of meditation.” The differences included a thicker cerebral cortex, the part of the brain associated with emotional integration and attention.
For the new study, they gathered 16 participants to undergo the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program given at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. The program includes:
- Weekly practice sessions of mindfulness meditation, focusing on nonjudgmental awareness of sensations, feelings, and state of mind
- Guided meditations recorded via audio
The participants were asked to track their daily practice. The scientists also used MRIs to scan the brains of non-meditators as a control.
The average daily practice was 27 minutes, but the results (measured via the mindfulness questionnaire) were significant after just eight weeks of mindfulness meditation. Not only did they perform better on the questionnaire, but the density of the gray matter in their hippocampus (a part of the brain important for memory and learning) had also increased, along with gray matter in brain structures responsible for compassion, introspection, and self-awareness. Gray matter in the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for stress and anxiety) decreased, along with the participant’s perception of stress.
The lead researcher stated, “By practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.”
Another researcher added, “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”
The benefits don’t just stop at improving brain function. As a professor at the University of Miami remarked, “These results…demonstrate that the first-person experience of stress can not only be reduced with an eight-week mindfulness training program but that this experiential change corresponds with structural changes in the amygdala, a finding that opens doors to many possibilities for further research on MBSR’s potential to protect against stress-related disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.”
1. Britta K. Hölzel, James Carmody, Mark Vangel, Christina Congleton, Sita M. Yerramsetti, Tim Gard, Sara W. Lazar. “Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density.” Psychiatry Research, Neuroimaging, Vol 191, issue 1, p. 36-43.