Meditation has been practiced for many years, and recently, science has shown some very real physical benefits. Recently, a team of researchers affiliated with Harvard University performed an 8-week study on the effects of mindful meditation on the brain. Using MRI scans on participants, researchers found some incredible results over the course of the study.
In the past, researchers found structural differences in the brain of those who meditate vs. those who don’t, specifically improvements in the areas related to attention and emotional integration. However, until now, they were not able to conclude that these differences were directly caused by meditation.
Study participants spent an average of 27 minutes per day practicing mindfulness meditation exercises. After 8-weeks, this had greatly stimulated an increase in gray matter density in the hippocampus, which is the region of the brain associated with compassion, introspection, and self-awareness. Sue McGreevey, of Massachusetts General Hospital, where the study was performed, said: “Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. None of these changes were seen in the control group, indicating that they had not resulted merely from the passage of time.”
McGreevey and other researches from Harvard University were able to conclude that the increase in gray matter was in fact caused by the mindful meditation exercises. Previously, practitioners of meditation had reported better mood, mindfulness, emotional awareness, and generally better feelings of well being, but it was unknown if these were caused by relaxing, or by actual changes in the brain. We know now that it was indeed the brain itself changing.
Britta Hölzel, who is the first author of the paper, and a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany, said the following.
“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.”