The most experienced neuroscientists at Harvard University were seriously astonished when they saw the results of a recent 8 week program of mindfulness meditation.
The study was led by a Harvard-affiliated team of researchers based at Massachusetts General Hospital, and the team’s MRI scans documented for the very first time ever in medical history that meditation produced massive changes inside 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,” says study senior author Sara Lazar of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program and a Harvard Medical School instructor in psychology in a recent interview. She further notes, “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.”
There have been so many studies on meditation recently that it’s hard to keep up. Lazar’s group and others have found structural differences between the brains of experienced meditation practitioners and individuals with no history of meditation, where they were able to observe thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotional integration. But those investigations could not actually document that those differences were actually produced by meditation. Amongst the full findings here, participant-reported reductions in stress were correlated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important 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,” says Britta Hölzel, first author of the paper and a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany. “Other studies in different patient populations have shown that meditation can make significant improvements in a variety of symptoms, and we are now investigating the underlying mechanisms in the brain that facilitate this change.”
While this demonstrates that the first-person experience of stress can not only be reduced with an eight-week mindfulness training program, but that this experiential change corresponds with structural changes in the amygdala, a finding that opens doors to many possibilities for further research on mindfulness based stress reduction and its potential to protect against stress-related disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder which plagues almost 5.2 million adults a year in the U.S. alone.
Now that’s mind blowing, gray matter and all.