New Studies Continuously Point to the Efficacy of Meditation
Dr. Joe Dispenza | 09 May 2019
You never know what it will be that moves your life in a new direction. For example, it was a running injury that propelled Mass General and Harvard Medical School’s neuroscientist, Sara Lazar, to begin studying meditation. It all began after sustaining an injury while training for the Boston Marathon. Because of her injury, her physical therapist advised her to stretch more, so naturally she took up yoga.
Lazar had heard all the claims about yoga and its benefits, but she was mostly in it for the physical therapy. It didn’t take long, however, for her to notice that she felt calmer, more compassionate, patient, and open hearted.
Being a naturally curious student, Lazar began reading up on the scientific literature behind mindfulness and meditation, a category under which yoga often falls. What she found was a vast amount of evidence that pointed to the over-all positive effects of meditation upon the body, including decreasing stress, depression, and anxiety, as well as reducing pain and insomnia, while increasing one’s overall quality of life. This led to her own neuroscience research.
In her first study, she looked at people who had been meditating for seven to nine years and compared them to a control group. What she found was that those who had been practicing meditation for a long time had increased gray matter in their auditory and sensory cortex, in the insula and sensory regions of the brain, and several other areas. Increases in gray matter were also found in a region of the brain linked to the frontal cortex, which is associated with decision-making and memory. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the study was that while most people’s cortexes shrink as they age, 50-year-old meditators in the study had the same amount of gray matter as those half their age. Imagine that—meditation can make you have a younger brain. It can also cause your brain to grow new neurons, contrary to the antiquated theory that was once said this was impossible.
One of the core benefits of mindful meditation is that it forces a person to slow down and engage with the present moment. It does this by challenging them to pay more attention to the physical sensations of meditation, such as breathing, the feelings of energy within the body, and the sounds around them.
To double check her results, Lazar conducted a second study. In it she enrolled participants who had never meditated and put them in an eight-week mindfulness program. Her question was: could it be that people who were long-term meditators had more gray matter to begin with?
What she found was that in just eight weeks of meditation, participants experienced a thickening in several regions of the brain, including the left hippocampus (involved in learning, memory, and emotional regulation); the TPJ (involved in empathy and the ability to take multiple perspectives); and a part of the brainstem called the pons (where regulatory neurotransmitters are generated). The amygdala of the new meditators also shrank, which is the brain’s survival center and the area that is correlated to a reduction of stress. The amygdala is a region of the brain associated with fear, anxiety, pain, and aggression.
Participants in the study were asked to meditate for 40 minutes a day, but the average turned out to be 27 minutes a day. Since 2013, we have been performing our own studies, quantitatively measuring transformation through the power of meditation. In fact, my research team and I found that in just four days of regular meditation during an advanced retreat, the gene for neurogenesis—that’s the growth of new neurons in response to novel experiences and learning—was activated.
What we now know empirically is that no matter how much time you put in, just like exercise, meditation is a practice—the more you do it, the better you get at it, and just as if you were training to get in shape, ten minutes is better than no minutes. So why not grow your brain so that you have more of the very raw materials in your brain to create, invent, dream, learn, remember, and improve your mind and awareness?