How Meditation Can Change the Brain

Waking Times

Scientists say that meditators may be benefiting from changes in their brains. The researchers report that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. The findings will appear in the Jan. 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.

M.R.I. brain scans taken before and after the participants’ meditation regimen found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress. A control group that did not practice meditation showed no such changes.

Britta Hölzel, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and the study’s lead author, said the participants practiced mindfulness meditation, a form of meditation that was introduced in the United States in the late 1970s.

“The main idea is to use different objects to focus one’s attention, and it could be a focus on sensations of breathing, or emotions or thoughts, or observing any type of body sensations,” she said. “But it’s about bringing the mind back to the here and now, as opposed to letting the mind drift.”

Generally the meditators are seated upright on a chair or the floor and in silence, although sometimes there might be a guide leading a session, Dr. Hölzel said.

Of course, it’s important to remember that the human brain is complicated. Understanding what the increased density of gray matter really means is still, well, a gray area.

“The field is very, very young, and we don’t really know enough about it yet,” Dr. Hölzel said. “I would say these are still quite preliminary findings. We see that there is something there, but we have to replicate these findings and find out what they really mean.”

It has been hard to pinpoint the benefits of meditation, but a 2009 study suggests that meditation may reduce blood pressure in patients with coronary heart disease. And a 2007 study found that meditators have longer attention spans.

Previous studies have also shown that there are structural differences between the brains of meditators and those who don’t meditate, although this new study is the first to document changes in gray matter over time through meditation.

Ultimately, Dr. Hölzel said she and her colleagues would like to demonstrate how meditation results in definitive improvements in people’s lives.

“A lot of studies find that it increases well-being, improves quality of life, but it’s always hard to determine how you can objectively test that,” she said. “Relatively little is known about the brain and the psychological mechanisms about how this is being done.”

In a 2008 study published in the journal PloS One, researchers found that when meditators heard the sounds of people suffering, they had stronger activation levels in their temporal parietal junctures, a part of the brain tied to empathy, than people who did not meditate.

“They may be more willing to help when someone suffers, and act more compassionately,” Dr. Hölzel said.

This article originally appeared at, an excellent source of news and information about natural health and disease prevention.

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  • Adam Evenson

    Not to be nit-picky, but only factual: instead of meditation, what is described in the research here is one of the earliest phases, or steps, toward meditation, which is concentration, not meditation itself. Back in the latter part of the Sixties, I achieved meditation after having spent quite a bit of effort attempting to concentrate and then achieving just that. I knew, unmistakably, the moment it happened. I knew that I had never entirely done it on earth before that time, nor had anybody that I personally knew of, except a precious few. Sages that pioneered the way in this area in past millennia described the various states leading to Full Wakefulness in terms of several steps. Since I achieved the first five steps by and by, I’ll name only those, as it would be too voluminous to go any farther in this comment. Any one of these steps, indeed, is too grand to fully detail here.

    Thus, just the first five distinctly different steps are named in the briefest explanation possible. The steps exist in ascending order as a ladder made up of the very same brain/mind stuff that one is ascending into and by means of, wherein each succeeding step is but an ascension of the step below, wholly recapitulating the lower step and setting it within the vaster domain above it on the higher step into which the lower step of a never-ending ladder upward metamorphoses naturally, after having achieved each step in its order.

    The steps are: Step 1) Arrest and close the mind upon any focal point (as a camera’s obturator) and hold it steady. This exercise, and ought else, eventually achieves Step 2) Attention, which metamorphoses, with no further effort than Attention, into all the steps above it, which are Step 3) Concentration; Step 4) Meditation, and Step 5) Contemplation, which penetrates beyond the stars in the heavens and one may even realize that this is what one is instead of a rotting corpse, too limited to imagine, blowing in the wind on the earth under a desert sun.

    Each of the enumerated items, in ascendimg/descending order, constitutes a whole domain in and of itself and is integrally connected with the steps above and below, so that all five steps could be called a seamless river of water gathering larger volume as it flows toward the ocean, in which said ocean is the final step listed above: Contemplation. The main distinction in similes here is that the H2O kind of water flows downhill–with, not against, gravity–whereas the five steps named flow uphill, and do fight and win against gravity, wherein one moves and reaches toward the stars instead of deeper entrenchment in the earth.

    I would guarantee that any individual that can achieve Step 1, toward Contemplation, will eventually achieve, perhaps not entirely to the top, but will at least liberate Meditation full-blown, and know it truly is happening, while reaping all the rewards of it. And at that, by doing nothing but continuing working with Step 1 at least for a few minutes daily (although I prefer hours and hours leading into months and years.) However, any exercise at all, of one’s mental “obturator,” i.e., one’s Arrested Focus, on any point of one’s choice, even once a month for five minutes, would be better than nothing and would easily put one above the herd of constantly bobbing heads, but daily is required to achieve the most; to reach for–and attain–the very stars in the heavens.

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