I confess that I’m struggling with my new meditation practice. I’ve diagnosed myself with a severe case of monkey-mind.
Monkey-mind = a buddhist term meaning “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable”.
But I’m persisting with my study, and in the blog today I’m sharing with you some research that shows the brain’s structure changes after only 8 weeks of meditation practice.
A group of Harvard neuroscientists were interested in mindfulness meditation because it had been reported to produce positive effects on psychological well-being that extended beyond the time the individual was actually meditating.
Sara Lazar, PhD, the study’s senior author, said,
“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”
To see if mindfulness training had any measurable effect on the brain, 17 people were enrolled in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course. The course promised to improve participants’ mindfulness and well-being, and reduce their levels of stress.
MRI scans of the people’s brains were taken before and after they completed the meditation course. A control group who didn’t do any mindfulness training also had their brains scanned.
Meditation group participants spent an average of 27 minutes a day practicing mindfulness exercises, and their responses to a mindfulness questionnaire indicated significant improvements compared with pre-participation responses. After the people completed the mindfulness course they all reported significant improvement in measures of mindfulness such as ‘acting with awareness’ and ‘non-judging’.
The brain images showed that, compared to the controls, the mindfulness groups had increased gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus, the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum. Grey matter is the part of the brain made up of nerve cell bodies, whereas white matter contains the axons.
Mindfulness training was associated with structural changes in brain regions involved in learning and memory, emotion regulation, sense of self, and perspective taking.
Britta Hölzel, the lead author on the paper says,
“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.”
Sarah Lazar also noted,
“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.
So the simple take-home message from this piece of research: Practice your meditation, it’ll change your brain.
Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vinni/4024516897/
Britta K. Hölzel, James Carmody, Mark Vangel, Christina Congleton, Sita M. Yerramsetti, Tim Gard, & Sara W. Lazara (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density Psychiatry Res DOI: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006
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About Dr Sarah
I’m an Oxford University-educated neuroscientist, presenter of ABC Catalyst, director of The Neuroscience Academy, and author of The Women's Brain Book. The neuroscience of health, hormones and happiness.
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Love this! Love your blog. I love that you are doing this. I have thought about it but you are DOING it!!
You totally should do it too Leisa!
Keep at it – even if you don’t think you’re doing it very well. Meditation is one of those things that falls into the “simple but not easy” category. I find listening either to guided meditations or music to be very helpful. Just trying to silence my mind on my own is futile!
Great advice … hadn’t thought about getting some ‘help’!
Here’s another piece that spells brain benefits of meditation. In this case the Kirtan Kriya form of meditation take only 12 minutes per day. http://huff.to/1lGBkd7
If you want to get to the scientific papers go to the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation. You can also download an mp3 that will guide in this type of meditation.
Thanks for the heads up – off to have a look.
Wonderful to have such positive feedback on the benefits of mindfulness meditation, thank you Sarah. Totally with you on the monkey mind! I find it helps to think of my meditation as a practice – not something to be good or bad at, rather something I try to do every day and just see how it goes. Like Diane I also use guided meditations and particularly like the work of Tara Brach http://www.tarabrach.com/audioarchives-guided-meditations.html
I have multiple sclerosis and am quite sure that my regular meditation practice is one of the reasons I am as well as I am. You may have heard of the book Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis by Prof George Jelinek. He recommends half an hour meditation daily as part of his recovery programme for MS, saying ‘Meditation is an extremely important part of the healing package. Some feel it is the most important part.’
I agree with him on this!
Please accept my hearty congratulations on your thoughts of a very realistic subject. I wish you also added how the meditation helps for different age groups, particularly in these days of increasing Alzhemer’s disease
Nice post! I can also attest to the monkey mind! Even experienced teachers will tell you they have thoughts, they have just learned to let them pass on by like a cloud.
In the development of our stress/ trauma relief training program, we researched the relaxation response which Dr. Bensen of Harvard postulated in 1975. We were fortunate enough to hear him last June at Harvard, where he presented further research showing that meditation alters genetic activity, besides the aforementioned.
Having meditated for over a decade now, I can attest to improved awareness, but I have no scientific basis for it, so I am glad to see these studies coming out. It validates my own experience and helps in our training of emergency responders, who are more moved to action by fact rather than anecdotes.
Great advice Thanks
Great article! Good to see some specific and measurable results in brain structure, rather than just the “feeling of well-being” which could equally come from placebos. I started daily meditation 5 years ago with the guidance of the free Vipassna course (held in many countries around the world). Now I like to alternate between unguided meditation and also using some free guided meditations from Omvana app or from FlickYourRichSwitch. Free to get the tools (mostly), simple to use (but not easy!), and makes a lifetime of difference in just a few days 🙂
Ohhh… placebo, one of my favourite topics! Must add that to the blog idea list.
Thanks for the heads-up about omvana too.
Hello, every time i used to check blog posts here in the early hours in the dawn, as i
love to find out more and more.
Can you recommend any specific resources for guided meditation?
Here is one: http://www.beyondthemind.com/how-to-meditate/
From Sydney University research Dr Ramesh Manocha.
[…] Research has found that a with a daily practice of as little as 27 minutes a day, meditation can change the brain structure in 8 weeks. How exactly? One of the most exciting scientific discoveries to emerge in recent years is the notion of neuroplasticity. This concept explores the ability of the brain to continually adapt and form new neural pathways according to our thoughts, beliefs and behaviours. What’s more, many new studies on how meditation affects the brain have shown that we can harness this neuroplasticity to make us calmer, happier and more focussed. […]
Yes, it is true meditation is the easy way to change your mind structure. For example if you feel lonely, confused and stressful at a time and you start meditation after a few days you see your mind is totally changed and you feel relaxed because meditation reduces the stress and increases happiness and creativity. Lama Surya Das says that meditation is helpful to making you a complete human being and it is the way to reduce negativity.
[…] “27 minutes of mindfulness meditation a day changes brain structure” Dr Sarah McKay on Your Brain Health gives both personal account and research on mindfulness, meditation and the changes to your brain structure. It is also worth reading the Comments section for further views and resources. […]