Mindfulness Meditation Physically Changes the Brain

2014.12.9.meditation.mainWhile practitioners have long touted the emotional and physical benefits of meditation, a new study by Harvard-affiliated researchers has shown that the effects are in their mind – literally. (Image via Shutterstock)In 1987, a lawyer, a neuroscientist and Tenzin Gyatso, known more commonly as the 14th Dalai Lama, had a meeting about science and spirituality. The three felt that the use of science as the dominant method in which to investigate reality was, at best, incomplete. They were convinced that “well-refined contemplative practices and introspective methods could, and should, be used as equal instruments of investigation.” This would, in turn, complement scientific discoveries, adding a more humane element to science.

It was from that meeting that Adam Engle (the lawyer), Francisco Varela (the neuroscientist), and the Dalai Lama (spiritual leader of the Tibetan people) decided to form the Mind and Life Institute.

For the past 25 years, the institute has focused on “building a scientific understanding of the mind as a way to help reduce suffering and promote human flourishing.” They take several approaches in fostering this understanding, which includes seminars or “dialogues” led by the Dalai Lama and other educational initiatives that promote cooperation between western medicine and philosophy, humanities and contemplative traditions. They also provide funding for scientific research on meditation.

Meditation has its roots in religious traditions. The well-known transcendental meditation, which has its roots in eastern practices, has been replaced in popularity by “mindfulness meditation.” The most common techniques can find their links to the Buddhist tradition. While meditation is an umbrella term to describe various relaxation techniques, mindfulness meditation is focused attention centered on the moment. This includes focusing on breathing, as well as current thoughts and emotional state. The idea is to be aware of everything that is going on in the mind and body without reaction or judgment, all while ignoring distractions.

While practitioners have long touted the emotional and physical benefits of meditation, a new study by Harvard-affiliated researchers has shown that the effects are in their mind – literally.

Previous studies have noted a difference in the amount of gray matter in the brains of people who had reported practicing mindfulness meditation compared to those who did not. Imaging scans showed a significantly larger amount of gray matter in the areas of the brain that affect attention and emotions. Yet those studies were unable to link meditation to the differences.

With that in mind, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital followed 16 participants in an eight week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program that included weekly meetings of mindfulness meditation. Participants also participated in additional sessions on their own and kept a record of their efforts. MRIs were taken of their brains two weeks prior to starting the program, and participants also filled out a mindfulness questionnaire.

Participants reported a weekly average of 27 minutes of meditation.

After the program, the participants’ brains were imaged again and compared to a group that did not participate in mediation. The analysis of the MRIs showed significant physical changes in the brain. Increased gray-matter density could be seen in the hippocampus, known to be important for “learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.” It also showed a decrease in the amount of gray matter in the area associated with stress and anxiety. There was also significant improvement on the mindfulness questionnaire after the eight week program.

None of these changes were recorded in the control group that did not participate in any meditation during the eight weeks.

While the study was small, the results support similar conclusions on the physical and mental effects of mindfulness meditation. It also provides a physical link to possible therapies for stress-related illnesses. If a person can be trained in mindfulness techniques, which this study has shown creates structural changes in the brain, it could lead to new ways to treat disorders like post-traumatic stress.

In other words, contemplation and introspection could help reduce suffering.

The study was funded by National Institutes of Health, the British Broadcasting Company, and the Mind and Life Institute.