What picture is painted in your head when you think of meditation or mindfulness? Perhaps you envision a yogi saying “ommm” while sitting cross-legged atop a straw mat, the only light illuminating the room from candles and incense. You may simply consider meditation as a way to relax, unwind, and center yourself. But do you associate meditation with boosting brain power? Maybe not – until now.
Lately, there’s been a big push for improving brain power through brain training games (I’m sure you’ve heard of Lumosity, for example) and mental exercises. Just like we exercise our muscles to stay strong, we need to exercise our brains to remain sharp. It just so happens, meditation and mindfulness may be the answer to pumping up that brain ‘muscle.’
Researchers are just starting to delve into exploring the positive impacts of meditation. We’re beginning to understand that meditation works wonders for psychological well-being, attention control, emotional self-regulation, and even reducing disease progression. And of course, meditation can bring on relaxation, a sense of calm, and a feeling of self-awareness. But currently, more work is being done in the area of understanding the link between meditation and the brain, in terms of structure and function.
Two types of tissues comprise the central nervous system (which includes the brain and spinal cord): grey matter and white matter. Grey matter is made up of the cell bodies of neurons (the cells that make up the brain) and unmyelinated axons of neurons. Axons are projections coming out from the cell bodies that are much like highways that carry information from one neuron to the next, in order to transmit signals that tell your brain and body what to do. Grey matter’s main purpose is to process information in the brain. White matter is made up of longer axons covered in myelin, which is a protective sheath that wraps around the axon in order to help transmit signals even faster. These myelinated axons transmit signals to the grey matter, which, as previously mentioned, is the tissue that processes information.
Recent studies are showing links between meditation/mindfulness and changes in both grey and white matter of the brain. In terms of grey matter, Eileen Luders of the UCLA School of Medicine, along with colleagues, published a study in NeuroImage regarding long-term meditation and changes in gray matter – again, remember that grey matter is pretty important, as it is where information processing occurs. Specifically, the study investigated MRI brain data of meditators versus non-meditators. They found increased grey matter amounts in the orbitofrontal cortex, thalamus, and inferior temporal gyrus, as well as larger hippocampal volumes of those who meditated. The orbitofrontal cortex is associated with decision-making; the thalamus relays sensory and motor signals throughout the brain; the inferior temporal gyrus is an area associated with complex visual processing. Increased grey matter concentration in these areas basically means decision-making, sensory and motor signaling, and visual processing functions are improved. The hippocampus is the learning and memory center of the brain, so increased size there relates to better learning and memory capabilities – all thanks to meditation!
A study from Harvard Medical School, published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, also found gray matter density increases as a result of mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation teaches individuals to have a sense of awareness of the present-moment, but in way that is non-judgmental and compassionate. The study employed an 8-week mindfulness program and compared grey matter density to pre-training levels and non-trained individuals. Grey matter increases were found in the hippocampus (learning and memory), posterior cingulate cortex (emotion regulation), temporo-parietal junction (self-referential processing), and the cerebellum (perspective taking, motor control).
White matter of the brain transmits signals along myelinated axons. A 2012 study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences investigated the impact of meditation on white matter efficiency and plasticity (how it changes) using MRI-based diffusion tensor imaging. The study tested white matter integrity before and after 4-week mindfulness training; their findings suggest increased white matter connectivity and neural activity of the anterior cingulate cortex. This brain region deals with conflict resolution, as well as control over cognitive and emotional processes. Increased white matter connectivity and integrity were also found in white matter signaling areas like the corpus callosum (the area that connects the two hemispheres of the brain), corona radiata, and longitudinal fasciculus.
The above studies initiated short- or long-term meditation/mindfulness training programs. In a study published in NeuroReport, researchers instead looked at meditators with extensive experience – an average of nine years, practicing six hours per week – and compared their brains to non-meditators. The researchers found increased cortical thickness among meditators in areas associated with somatosensory, auditory, visual, and processing of one’s body’s physiological condition.
Meditation and mindfulness training go a step beyond simply inducing relaxation and self-awareness. Increased grey matter and white matter density appear to be significant benefits of engaging in meditation. Whether meditation is resulting in increasing these cognitively and emotionally important brain regions or simply preventing reduction of those areas, more effective neurological functioning is the result regardless. Beyond being beneficial to the general population, meditation and mindfulness training can possibly enter the world of disease treatment for those experiencing demyelination of axons and overall brain atrophy. Why not try adding even just five minutes of meditation each day – your brain will thank you for it.