Meditation Pumps Up the Brain, Improves Ability to Adapt
Meditation is a mind-body practice in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in which a person learns to focus attention and become mindful of thoughts, feelings, and sensations. It can also bring about a state of greater calmness and physical relaxation. But did you also know that it can actually thicken the brain and strengthen the connections between brain cells?
UCLA researchers have long studied the awesome powers that meditation has on the human brain. Two years ago, they found that specific regions within the brains of long-term meditators were larger and had more gray matter than those who did not practice the ancient tradition. MRI scans found that the hippocampus and other areas known for regulating emotions had larger volumes, and therefore allow for well-adjusted responses to “whatever life throws your way.”
Thickening of the brain may also help reinforce regions that regulate pain. And because our brains tend to shrink as we get older, meditation has also been found beneficial in helping to reduce age-related memory loss by reducing atrophy and improving the connection between neurons.
But it’s good to know that the benefits do not stop there. Eileen Luders, an assistant professor at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro-Imaging, and colleagues have found that long-term meditation practitioners also have larger amounts of “gyrification,” or a folding of the cerebral cortex – the outermost later of neural tissue that plays an important role in memory, attention, thought, and consciousness. This may allow the brain to process information faster and improve neuroplasticity, or the ability to adapt to environmental changes.
The team also found that the more meditation someone practices, the greater the extent of the folding and the better the brain is in making decisions, forming memories, and other important processing tasks.
The team also found heightened levels of gyrification in a portion of the brain known as the insula. "The insula has been suggested to function as a hub for autonomic, affective and cognitive integration," said Luders. "Meditators are known to be masters in introspection and awareness as well as emotional control and self-regulation, so the findings make sense that the longer someone has meditated, the higher the degree of folding in the insula."
Did the type of meditation have an effect? No, says Luder. The meditators in the study – which included 28 men and 22 women – practiced a variety of different meditation types, including Samatha, Vipassana, and Zen. But they had practiced on average for about 20 years. Of course, it is never too late to start.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) offers an introduction to Meditation, including resources for further study. The Worldwide Meditation Center and the Meditation Society of America also offer tips on a variety of techniques to get you started.
Eileen Luders, Florian Kurth, Emeran A. Mayer, Arthur W. Toga, Katherine L. Narr, Christian Gaser. The Unique Brain Anatomy of Meditation Practitioners: Alterations in Cortical Gyrification. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2012; 6 DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00034
Grant et al. Cortical thickness and pain sensitivity in Zen meditators.. Emotion, 2010; 10 (1): 43 DOI:10.1037/a0018334
Eileen Luders, Kristi Clark, Katherine L. Narr, Arthur W. Toga. Enhanced brain connectivity in long-term meditation practitioners. NeuroImage, 2011; DOI:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.05.075
University of California - Los Angeles (2009, May 12). Meditation May Increase Gray Matter. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 18, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com¬.