A recent study released in the Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging journal shows a strong correlation between meditation and improved stress, memory, empathy, and overall happiness of participants. The study was conducted over a period of 8 weeks as 16 participants spent 30 minutes a day in meditation. Their brains were scanned over a two week period before the program and a two week period once the program was completed. During the same two week periods, people who were not meditating also had their brains scanned as a control. None of the participants were experienced meditators.
The meditation program was one designed by Jon Kabat-Zinn called the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction(MBSR) program. Participants enroll in a weekly course where they are taught to focus on mindfulness throughout the day and learn how to meditate. Mindfulness practices are designed to increase one’s awareness of their body, actions, thoughts, emotions, surroundings and environment. These practices, combined with meditation, often enhance one’s capacity to concentrate, attention span, and memory.
Previous studies following the MBSR program have recorded participant’s decreased stress levels, more favorable emotions and reduced physical pain, among other benefits. However, reports on the program were based primarily upon the testimony of participants and did not use brain imaging technology to document the precise brain alterations as they occurred. Alternatively, the new study found intriguing results centralized in specific regions of the brain through in-lab testing.
The study found notable alterations in the hippocampus, posterior cingulated cortex, cerebellum and temporal-parietal region. These regions displayed an increased density of gray matter which the scientists considered a positive indication of their well-being. People experiencing mood deficiencies or depression, for instance, often have below average gray matter in the hippocampus. Those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder also frequently exhibit decreased gray matter in the hippocampus. A correlation is not surprising as the hippocampus plays an important role in regulating emotion, memory and learning. The cerebellum also takes part in monitoring human emotions, while the temporal-parietal region and the posterior cingulated cortex are engaged in empathy and the ability to imagine the perspective of others. Those who did not participate in the MBSR program did not share these results.
Britta Hölzel, the study’s director, notes that their conclusions are still speculative but admits the study gives a positive impression. Denser gray matter appears to correlate with the strength and utilization of those regions of the brain. Thus, subjects who participated in the MBSR training experienced increased mood control, emotional stability and elevation, improved empathy and reduced stress.
While numerous studies have been conducted to determine the effects of meditation on the human mind, Hölzel’s research contributes singular information on the effects of brief, novice meditation. Although many studies have returned positive results denoting the value of meditation, often these tests have been conducted on more experienced yogis. Thus, the results have had far fewer implications on the relative physical, mental, emotional and overall health impacts of meditating on those just beginning meditation. This new research is a testament to the marked effect only a few weeks of regular meditation can have on portions of the human mind.
The study is also unique in its documentation of the before and after effects of meditation. Previous studies have primarily focused on comparing the brains of expert yogis to those of average, non-meditating peoples. Their results have shown that the yogi brain is indeed markedly different from others. However, studies had yet to show the transitional impact of meditation on human minds regarding the brain’s physical structure.
Hölzel remarked, “I think what’s really positive and promising about this study is that it suggests our well-being is in our hands.” The elasticity of the brain was indeed demonstrated in this research, which means mental and physical well-being are truly accessible, even reasonable, to achieve.