MASSACHUSSETTS, United States, Thursday November 27, 2014 – Meditation, sometimes relegated to the realms of New Age baloney or fraudulent Eastern mysticism, has turned out to be a genuine workout for the mind, according to American scientists who have discovered that it can increase the size of the brain.
The results can be achieved in a relatively short space of time, moreover, with just eight weeks of meditation sufficient to produce structural changes large enough to be picked up by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners, Harvard scientists have found.
A course of simple “mindfulness” meditation was found to help build denser grey matter in areas of the brain associated with learning, memory, controlling emotions and compassion.
“Mindfulness,” an increasingly popular form of meditation, aims to detach the subject from the “chatter of the mind” by focusing thoughts on the body’s physical sensations.
In a study run by Harvard neuroscientist Dr Sara Lazar and her colleagues, 16 volunteers had their brains scanned before and after an eight-week “mindfulness” course.
The volunteers participated in weekly group sessions comprising breathing exercises and gentle yoga, as well as focusing their thoughts on one part of the body at a time. They also practised the techniques for about 30 minutes daily.
The volunteers underwent MRI scans before and after the sessions. The scans were then compared with those of a group of volunteers who had not taken part in the course.
Course participants were seen to have thicker grey matter in several parts of the brain after just eight weeks.
The improved areas included the left hippocampus, a small horseshoe-shaped structure in the central brain involved in memory, learning and emotional regulation.
Also showing improvement were the posterior cingulate cortex – again important for memory and emotions; the temporo-parietal junction, involved in empathising; and the cerebellum, which helps coordinate movement.
No such structural brain changes were experienced by the volunteers who did not take part in the course.
According to Dr Lazar, mental exercise stimulates the neurons that make up grey matter to form denser connections among themselves.
“If you use a particular part of your brain, it’s going to grow because you are using it. It really is mental exercise. Basically, the idea is ‘use it or lose it.’ It’s like building a muscle,” she said.