Beginning in the 1970s, studies showed that something was happening in the brain during meditation. In the last decade, the research has begun to show that meditation can also produce long-term structural changes in the brain. No longer is the “hard wiring” of neural circuits so dominant. The brain can alter its wiring in “soft” ways, thanks to a trait known as neuroplasticity, which allows new pathways and even new brain cells to appear.
Measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress start to appear in subjects who practice mindfulness meditation for only eight weeks. A team led by Harvard-affiliated researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital reported these results in the first study “to document meditation-produced changes over time in the brain’s gray matter.”
What makes this finding so important is that it links how people feel when they meditate, with their physiology—the kind of proof that neuroscience demands. The old view was that meditators reported all kinds of mental and psychological benefits when in fact all they were doing in meditation was entering a state of deep relaxation. In the Harvard study, MRI scans were taken of the brains of 16 participants two weeks prior to the study and directly afterward. MRI images of the participants were also taken after the study was completed. It was already known that during meditation brain wave activity increases in areas like alpha waves. These MRIs showed something more permanent: denser gray matter in specific regions like the hippocampus, which is crucial for learning and memory, as well as in other areas associated with self-awareness, compassion, and reflection.
Another study compared long-term meditators with a control group. The main findings were that meditators had larger gray matter volumes than non-meditators in areas of the higher brain (cortex) that are associated with emotional regulation and response control. A famous study of Tibetan Buddhist monks showed activity in the area of the brain associated with compassion.
Loss of grey matter (brain cells) and their connections is a common part of aging. Now it appears that this loss isn’t inescapable. Some older people appear to be genetically protected from the deterioration of memory and brain cells, but in general only 10 percent of people who believe they have superior memories actually do, according to the standards set for a study of such “super agers.” Finding out what makes them so unusual is a promising line of research, with the main focus being on their brains as compared to younger controls and “normal” older people.
What You Can Do to Promote Brain Health
But what you can do right now is what counts the most. That’s how the “new normal” can evolve, one person at a time. Regular meditation, at any age, should be combined with lifestyle habits that have the strongest long-term effects. These include:
- Dealing with stress in a meaningful way.
- Fostering loving and fulfilling relationships.
- Having close daily contact with the people who are important to you.
- Creating a vision of what your life means, guided by a purpose you feel passionate about.
- Establishing regular habits of good sleep, diet, and physical activity.
- Learning to be emotionally flexible, and developing good coping skills that will serve you in a crisis and during other difficult times.
- Having a strong sense of self that is independent of what others think or say.