Daily Meditation Boosts & Revitalizes the Brain and Reduces Stress, Harvard Study Finds

I don’t mean to sound dra­mat­ic, but med­i­ta­tion may have saved my life. Dur­ing a par­tic­u­lar­ly chal­leng­ing time of over­work, under­pay, and seri­ous fam­i­ly dis­tress, I found myself at dan­ger­ous, near-stroke lev­els of high cho­les­terol and blood pres­sure, and the begin­nings of near-crip­pling ear­ly-onset arthri­tis. My doc­tors were alarmed. Some­thing had to change. Unable to make stress­ful out­er cir­cum­stances dis­ap­pear, I had to find con­struc­tive ways to man­age my respons­es to them instead. Yoga and med­i­ta­tion made the dif­fer­ence.

I’m hard­ly alone in this jour­ney. The lead­ing cause of death in the U.S. is heart dis­ease, fol­lowed close­ly by stroke, dia­betes, and depres­sion lead­ing to suicide—all con­di­tions exac­er­bat­ed by high lev­els of stress and anx­i­ety. In my own case, a changed diet and dai­ly exer­cise played a cru­cial role in my phys­i­cal recov­ery, but those dis­ci­plines would not even have been pos­si­ble to adopt were it not for the calm­ing, cen­ter­ing effects of a dai­ly med­i­ta­tion prac­tice.

Anec­dotes, how­ev­er, are not evi­dence. We are bom­bard­ed with claims about the mir­a­cle mag­ic of “mind­ful­ness,” a word that comes from Bud­dhism and describes a kind of med­i­ta­tion that focus­es on the breath and body sen­sa­tions as anchors for present-moment aware­ness. Some form of “mind­ful­ness based stress reduc­tion” has entered near­ly every kind of ther­a­py, reha­bil­i­ta­tion, cor­po­rate train­ing, and pain man­age­ment, and the word has been a mar­ket­ing totem for at least a sol­id decade now. No one ever needs to men­tion the B‑word in all this med­i­ta­tion talk. As one med­i­ta­tion teacher tells his begin­ner stu­dents, “Bud­dhism can­not exist with­out mind­ful­ness, but mind­ful­ness can exist per­fect­ly well with­out Bud­dhism.”

So, no need to believe in rein­car­na­tion, renun­ci­a­tion, or high­er states of con­scious­ness, fine. But does med­i­ta­tion real­ly change your brain? Yes. Aca­d­e­m­ic researchers have con­duct­ed dozens of stud­ies on how the prac­tice works, and have near­ly all con­clud­ed that it does. “There’s more than an arti­cle a day on the sub­ject in peer-reviewed jour­nals,” says Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to psy­chi­a­trist Steven Selchen, “The research is vast now.” One research team at Har­vard, led by Har­vard Med­ical School psy­chol­o­gy instruc­tor Sara Lazar, pub­lished a study in 2011 that shows how mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion results in phys­i­cal changes to the brain.

The paper details the results of MRI scans from 16 sub­jects “before and after they took part in the eight-week Mind­ful­ness-Based Stress Reduc­tion (MBSR) Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts Cen­ter for Mind­ful­ness,” reports the Har­vard Gazette. Each of the par­tic­i­pants spent “an aver­age of 27 min­utes each day prac­tic­ing mind­ful­ness exer­cis­es.” After the pro­gram, they report­ed sig­nif­i­cant stress reduc­tion on a ques­tion­naire, and analy­sis of their MRIs “found increased gray-mat­ter den­si­ty in the hip­pocam­pus, known to be impor­tant for learn­ing and mem­o­ry, and in struc­tures asso­ci­at­ed with self-aware­ness, com­pas­sion, and intro­spec­tion.”

The Har­vard Busi­ness Review points to a anoth­er sur­vey study in which sci­en­tists from the Uni­ver­si­ty of British Colum­bia and the Chem­nitz Uni­ver­si­ty of Tech­nol­o­gy “were able to pool data from more than 20 stud­ies to deter­mine which areas of the brain are con­sis­tent­ly affect­ed. They iden­ti­fied at least eight dif­fer­ent regions.” High­light­ing two areas “of par­tic­u­lar con­cern to busi­ness pro­fes­sion­als,” the HBR describes changes to the ante­ri­or cin­gu­late cor­tex (ACC), an area of the frontal lobe asso­ci­at­ed with self-reg­u­la­tion, learn­ing, and deci­sion-mak­ing. The ACC “may be par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant in the face of uncer­tain and fast-chang­ing con­di­tions.” Like Lazar’s Har­vard study, the researchers also iden­ti­fied “increased amounts of gray mat­ter” in the hip­pocam­pus, an area high­ly sub­ject to dam­age from chron­ic stress.

These stud­ies and many oth­ers bring mind­ful­ness togeth­er with anoth­er cur­rent psy­cho­log­i­cal buzz­word that has proven to be true: neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty, the idea that we can change our brains for the better—that we are not “hard­wired” to repeat pat­terns of behav­ior despite our best efforts. In the TEDx Cam­bridge talk at the top of the post, Lazar explains her results, and con­nects them with her own expe­ri­ences with med­i­ta­tion. She is, you’ll see right away, a skep­tic, not inclined to accept med­ical claims prof­fered by yoga and med­i­ta­tion teach­ers. But she found that those prac­tices worked in her own life, and also had “sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly val­i­dat­ed ben­e­fits” in reduc­ing stress, depres­sion, anx­i­ety, and phys­i­cal pain. In oth­er words, they work.

None of the research inval­i­dates the Bud­dhist and Hin­du tra­di­tions from which yoga and med­i­ta­tion come, but it does show that one needn’t adopt any par­tic­u­lar belief sys­tem in order to reap the health ben­e­fits of the prac­tices. For some sec­u­lar intro­duc­tions to med­i­ta­tion, you may wish to try UCLA’s free guid­ed med­i­ta­tion ses­sions or check out the Med­i­ta­tion 101 ani­mat­ed beginner’s guide above. If you’re not too put off by the occa­sion­al Bud­dhist ref­er­ence, I would also high­ly rec­om­mend the Insight Med­i­ta­tion Center’s free six-part intro­duc­tion to mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion. Chron­ic stress is lit­er­al­ly killing us. We have it in our pow­er to change the way we respond to cir­cum­stances, change the phys­i­cal struc­ture of our brains, and become hap­pi­er and health­i­er as a result.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Guid­ed Med­i­ta­tions From UCLA: Boost Your Aware­ness & Ease Your Stress

Med­i­ta­tion 101: A Short, Ani­mat­ed Beginner’s Guide

David Lynch Explains How Med­i­ta­tion Enhances Our Cre­ativ­i­ty

Alan Watts Intro­duces Amer­i­ca to Med­i­ta­tion & East­ern Phi­los­o­phy: Watch the 1960 TV Show, East­ern Wis­dom and Mod­ern Life

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Anee says:

    Men­tal pain is the most seri­ous dis­ease. Every­one wants to get rid of emo­tion­al pain. Brain is the most impor­tant organ of our body.
    So some gen­er­al knowl­edge about the brain is impor­tant for us.

    Thanks for pub­lished this help­ful post.

  • Robert says:

    “Mind­ful­ness can exist with­out Bud­dhism”?? Say what? Mind­ful­ness IS the very essence of Bud­dhism. To claim like many mod­ern era cer­ti­fied mind­ful­ness instruc­tors, who know lit­tle to noth­ing about the roots of Bud­dhism, is like say­ing the Rain exists with­out the sky. Mind­ful­ness with­out Bud­dhism is a quick and easy solu­tion like so many (what we were told was) “New Age” think­ing. Noth­ing wrong with that, alls I’m say­ing, is many off­spring lose sight of their ori­gins. Mind­ful­ness is the true eye of the trea­sure of Bud­dhism. The Shobo­gen­zo itself. “We don’t sit to become enlight­ened, because we are enlight­ened we sit”. Eihei Dogen Zen­ji (1200–1253)

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