The Spiral Ladder

Climb over the Wall

Benefits of Meditation: Evolution On-Demand

Study suggests that meditation boosts grey matter
By Michael Kwan
Sure, a number of studies may indicate that the brain of a Buddhist monk is quite dissimilar from that of your average Dick or Jane. It’s not surprising that most of us are different from people living modestly in secluded monasteries, eating vegetarian and spending most waking hours in deep contemplation.  However, a study performed by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) suggests that even the brains of average North American working folk can be significantly altered by the practice of meditation.The Dalai Lama recently spoke at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting, where the MGH study was presented.  He said that the gap between Eastern meditation and Western neuroscience can and should be bridged.  Both parties should collaborate on future studies: “Buddhists investigate reality.  So do scientists.  By gaining deeper insight into the human psyche, we might find ways of transforming our thoughts, emotions and their underlying properties so that a more wholesome and fulfilling way can be found.”  Indeed, he views Western medicine and Eastern practices as having a common philosophical goal—the understanding and improvement of health.The spiritual leader also addressed the moral issues involved: “The radical advances that took place in neuroscience and particularly genetics toward the end of the 20th century have led to a new era in human history… Our knowledge of the human brain and body at the cellular and genetic level… has reached such a stage that the ethical challenges of these scientific advances are enormous.”

Using advanced brain imaging technology, Dr. Sara Lazar and the rest of the MGH research team looked at the brains of study participants who meditate approximately 40 minutes each day.  “These are normal people with jobs and families,” noted Jeremy Gray, co-author of the study.  It was revealed that certain parts of meditators’ brains were significantly thicker compared to controls.  More specifically, areas associated with perception—from hearing and seeing to the automatic monitoring of heart rate—had significantly greater amounts of grey matter (i.e., the brain’s cell bodies, as opposed to white matter, which are transmission arms).  Thicker brain tissue was also found in the insula, an area of the brain involved in pain, hunger, and thought integration.

It makes sense that most of the significant changes occurred in the right hemisphere, which is vital for sustaining attention, given that meditation concentrates on mental focus.  What’s more, the study found cortical thickening of the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain vital for more advanced brain functions like decision-making.  This difference was particularly pronounced among older participants, suggesting that meditation may slow age-related thinning of the brain.  All these findings indicate that meditation is “not just sitting there quietly.  [It] is having a profound [long-term] effect on key brain structures,” according to Lazar.  Gray reminds us that “you don’t have to be a monk” to benefit from meditation.

The research focused on structural brain changes in those who practice Buddhist Insight meditation, which emphasizes “mindfulness,” but there is evidence that similar improvements may be found in those who practice yoga or other forms of meditation.

For a more detailed description of the MGH study, check the November 15, 2005 edition of NeuroReport.


Benefits of Meditation: Evolution on Demand

The driving force behind evolution is adaptation toward survival. That organizing principle has enabled life from bacteria to Homo Sapiens to thrive. But we have reached a new phase in human development. To a great degree, threats from the natural environment no longer define our existence. Night-roaming carnivores are generally not the nemesis. The most virulent threat we face today is rooted in our own Darwinian heritage. It springs from tribal and xenophobic impulses buried deep within primitive brain structures. These impulses create conflicts between countries, races, religions, and even neighborhoods.

But we can jumpstart evolution and leverage it on our own terms. We can literally rewire our brains toward greater compassion and cooperation. As always–it begins with the individual.

A recent study led by Massachusetts General Hospital found that half hour per day of meditative practice over only eight weeks led to increased feelings of compassion, self-awareness, introspection, and reduced stress. The study also reported that changes in brain structure appear to underlie these perceptions. Increases in gray matter density have been observed in structures associated with these compassionate states, as well as areas linked to memory and cognition. Researchers sometimes refer to such measurable changes from meditative practice as “self-directed neuroplasticity.”

We spend a lifetime learning the details of our culture and the tools of intellectual inquiry. But we invest virtually no energy in mastering our own consciousness. Taking control of mental states positively impacts both personal and societal well-being.

There are many meditative paths: Buddhism’s Zazen, Transcendental Meditation, Tai Chi, ritualized dance, cycles of the rosary, visualizing energy moving up and down the spine as described by Hindu traditions, Islamic prayer chants, and Judaism’s Torah readings. Prayer and meditative practices are part of every major religion; they take us out of ourselves. The primary goal of meditation is to minimize internal chaos and noise — a calming and centering activity. In an era of multitasking, jump-cut media overload, and the demands of 24/7 technology connectivity, these practices become even more important and beneficial.

Meditation can become an integral part of daily life. A simple pause to look at the trees or the sky helps to momentarily shut down mental checklists and rehashing of the day’s activities. It can change our mood almost instantaneously. Stopping regularly to observe the breath is another powerful interrupter. Before bed, imagining consciousness leaving the confines of the body and becoming expansive can lead to relaxation and restful sleep.

Recent developments in the biological sciences indicate that environmental influences can alter a newly recognized layer of genomic control called the epigenome. And some epigenetic changes have even been shown to persist across generational boundaries. Until recently, this was thought to be impossible. Extrapolating this notion, we might speculate that the benefits resulting from meditative practices could conceivably be passed on to future generations.

Evolution on-demand springs from the human ability to self-determine. Xenophobic instincts, while unarguably part of our biological hard-wiring, do not have to dictate our interactions. The capacity for choice is one of our greatest gifts as a species. We can positively affect our personal behavior through meditative practice. And we can all participate in that process — starting now.


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