We've discussed some of the benefits of meditation, including how it can help you at work and relieve chronic pain and stress. New research shows that the mental benefits are much broader and can be achieved in as little as eight weeks of short (but regular) meditation.
Photo by M. Dolly
In a study published in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, researchers reinforced previous studies that indicated that regular meditation (or other "mindfulness exercises") can produce measurable changes in the areas of the brain associated with empathy, memory and sense of self. In an interview with the Harvard Gazette, the study's lead author explained:
"Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day," says study senior author Sara Lazar of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program and a Harvard Medical School instructor in psychology. "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."
Participants in the study spent close to a half-hour every day meditating or practicing some other mindfulness exercise for about eight weeks. MRIs of their brains were carried out before and after the eight week exercise. When the study was over, many of the 16 participants showed significant changes in the areas of the brain associated with behaviour, memory and stress:
The analysis of MR images, which focused on areas where meditation-associated differences were seen in earlier studies, found increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.
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. Although no change was seen in a self-awareness-associated structure called the insula, which had been identified in earlier studies, the authors suggest that longer-term meditation practice might be needed to produce changes in that area. None of these changes were seen in the control group, indicating that they had not resulted merely from the passage of time.
Researchers note that their analysis uncovered a relationship between meditation and neurological activity, not necessarily a direct line between meditation and the behaviours that resulted, even though the study participants also reported improvements in mood, stress and memory. The results offer an interesting look into how quickly regular meditation can yield tangible mental benefits in your life.
If half an hour every day is too much for you, there are ways to fit meditation into a busy lifestyle. Research done by Lift, a service used to help build positive habits, points out that while eight weeks may sound like a long time, it only takes about 11 days to really get into the habit. For more information on the study, check out the full text at the link below.
Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain grey matter density (PDF) [University of Massaschusetts Medical School via Harvard Gazetter]