Many people swear by meditation and mindfulness exercises as a way to increase happiness and peacefulness, but now Harvard researchers have discovered that these exercises might also increase growth of the brain's gray matter and have measurable changes upon brain areas that are associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress.
The study will be published in next January's issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, but the Harvard-affiliated research team at Massachusetts General Hospital already reported their findings about the meditation-produced changes in the brain's gray matter.
"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," said one of the study's senior author Sara Lazar. "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."
Basically, researchers measured the MR images of participants brains over an eight-week mindfulness program from the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. The program focuses on "nonjudgmental awareness of sensations, feelings, and state of mind" and is delivered through audio recordings and guided meditation. MR scans were also taken for a control group of people who weren't participating in the mindfulness exercises.
The scans showed increased "gray-matter density in the hippocampus" of the participants. The hippocampus, of course, helps with learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion and introspection. The scans of the participants also reflected a "decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala" which plays a role in anxiety and stress.
“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," said Britta Hölzel, one of the authors on the paper.
The study participants spent an average of 27 minutes doing mindfulness exercises, and their self-response reports also indicated an improved sense of mindfulness.
Have you ever tried meditation to calm yourself down? What do you think of the study's results? Let us know in the comments.