For years people have turned to meditation when they’re in need of a moment to zen out. Sitting in silence and stillness seemed to be the antidote to the chaotic whirlwind of everyday life. Meditators found their practices to be grounding - literally and figuratively - and physically and emotionally relaxing. While it was rarely disputed that the act of meditating could provide calming refuge while someone was practicing on their cushion, about the power of meditation - neurologically and physiologically - off the cushion.
However, the past decade has seen great strides in meditation research, and the benefits are now more than just anecdotal - they’re scientifically proven. In 2011, Sara Lazar, a Harvard neuroscientist and a team of Harvard researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital published a study detailing the brain’s response to meditation.
After beginning a personal yoga practice, Sara recognized an increased sense of calm and empathy in herself. That unexpected result sparked an interest in physiological effects of meditation. Sara initially observed the differences in grey matter between meditators and non-meditators with encouraging results. From that study she found that 50 year old meditators had the same amount of cortex as 25 year old non-meditators, which suggested that meditation actually slows down the decline in cortical structure that comes from aging.
In search of more substantial results on meditation’s ability to de-stress and change behaviors Sara and her team found people who had never meditated before and put them through an 8-week meditation-based stress reduction program.
After eight weeks of meditating, Sara and her team found that several areas of the brain grew, including:
The Hippocampus - The Hippocampus assists learning and memory and emotion regulation. People who are depressed or suffer from PTSD generally have less grey matter in their Hippocampus region.
Temporo-parietal Junction - The Temporo-parietal Junction assists perspective taking, as well as empathy and compassion.
In addition to grey matter growth in several areas, the team also uncovered an interesting result regarding grey matter decline in specific areas of the brain:
Amygdala - The Amygdala controls the fight or flight reaction in your brain. This change in grey matter paralleled the change in stress, or more specifically, the change in the group’s reaction to stress and stressful environments.
These findings support what anecdotes could never fully prove: meditation is more than just a placebo effect; it has real effects on the makeup of the brain, and subsequently, the mental and emotional qualities of daily meditators.