Use your mind to change your brain
You may remember that I mentioned meditation in my post about making the most of my 2012 as something which I would like to incorporate into my life more this year. If so, you probably guessed that I believe meditation can have a positive impact on our lives (or my life, at least). However, I didn’t actually tell you very much about why I believe this, so I thought I would write a post talking a little bit about the impact that meditation can have on your brain.
I started thinking about writing this post when I was reading some of the latest stories on the BBC News website two days ago, and I stumbled upon a headline which read, “Scans ‘show mindfulness meditation brain boost'”. This kind of headline is right up my alley, so I looked at the story immediately.
There isn’t actually much of an article with this story, but I think that the video in the link above is worth watching, as it is interesting and it certainly shows an example of the impact meditation can have on a person’s brain. However, in the video, they only look at brain scans for one person at a time, and so they are not able to show some of the incredible effects meditation can have, particularly for people who practice meditation regularly for a longer period of time.
Disclaimer: Before I go any farther, I just want to say that when I talk about meditation, I am not pushing any particular religion or religious views. Buddhism happens to be a religion (or philosophy) which promotes and makes use of meditation (and Buddhist monks are experts at meditation so they are good research participants), but meditation and Buddhism are not synonymous, and I believe that meditation can be done without any religious overtones. In addition, everything written in this post is based simply on my own views and understanding of what I have heard and read. It is not meant to be taken as medical advice.
I first became interested in meditation when I was studying at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. One of the professors who works in the psychology and psychiatry departments, Dr. Richard Davidson*, gave a lecture in one of my classes about his research. He talked about happiness as a skill which could be cultivated through meditation rather than merely a feeling we experience when positive things happen to us. Having happiness, which I had previously understood as an emotion (and therefore, somewhat out of our control) described as a skill, was an eye-opener for me. If what Dr. Davidson was saying was true, it meant that positive emotions and states of mind could be gained through work and practice, like learning to play a musical instrument, rather than just waiting for positive events to occur. I was raised to believe that a positive attitude is very important and helpful, but this was a big step beyond just having a positive attitude, and it provided a concrete method for achieving it (rather than just telling someone to cheer up or to think positively). I immediately liked this idea, and so I was very curious to find out whether it could actually be achieved.
In one lecture, Dr. Davidson was able to provide more than enough evidence to make me believe in the power of meditation, and although I won’t be able to relay his work as well as he did, I will try to tell you a little bit about his background and research mixed with other studies which have been conducted on this topic.
Interestingly, Dr. Davidson’s work has received support from the Dalai Lama himself, which meant that when I was studying in Madison, Dr. Davidson had a fairly consistent flow of Buddhist monks visiting him to take part in his studies. It was always slightly strange to pass Tibetan monks dressed in robes in the corridor on my way to class, but I think this collaboration is really cool and I felt lucky to be at a university where such interesting research was being done!
Neuroplasticity is a term used to describe changes in the structure and/or function of the brain which occur as a result of experience, and this is the focus of much of Dr. Davidson’s work. Dr. Davidson and many other researchers have worked with Buddhist monks, who are experts at meditation and engage in many hours of meditation each day, and also people new to meditation, and they have been able to use neuroimaging techniques to show that meditation can cause visible changes to the brain. These changes are not random, but tend to occur in brain areas associated with happiness, compassion, and mind-body interaction.
One recent study (Hölzel et al., 2010) showed changes in the gray matter brain regions associated with learning and memory, emotion regulation, sense of self, empathy, and perspective in participants who took part in meditation practice for just 30 minutes per day for eight weeks – and these were people who prior to the study were considered meditation-naïve. Other participants took part in the study but did not meditate regularly, and these participants did not experience these changes. This strongly suggests that the people who meditated regularly for eight weeks caused physical changes to the structures of their brains.
Another study (Davidson, et al., 2008) suggests that with enough practice, certain forms of meditation can lead to increased attention and concentration abilities (achieved with less effort). It also suggests that the brain can more efficiently process incoming stimuli (e.g., sounds, sights, memories) following consistent meditation practice.
I could spend months reading the literature and working on this post and still not manage to give you even half of the information about the impact of meditation on the brain, partly because there is already so much work which has been done on this topic, and partly because this is a relatively new, and very fast-growing area of research, However, when taken together, even just these few findings strongly suggest that meditation can have a real impact on the brain – both its physical features and its function.
Some practical applications for this research are quite obvious since it seems like meditation may have a positive impact on brain function, memory, and subjective feelings of happiness for people who meditate regularly. However, many scientists also hope that meditation may eventually form part of an effective treatment plan for people with depression, and I believe meditation may come to play a larger role in clinical psychology as the years go by.
In addition, it seems like meditation can impact more than just our brain function, either directly or indirectly. I have also recently come across stories about meditation reducing the risk of heart-attacks, strokes, and deaths from all causes, meditation increasing melatonin levels and therefore possibly aiding in the treatment of certain types of cancer, meditation helping people cope with chronic pain, and the list could go on and on!
In my own (minimal) experience with meditation, it seems to help my IBS. As I have mentioned before, my symptoms are relatively well-controlled, but when I am in a stressful situation, I immediately get an IBS stomach ache. This used to simply make me feel even more stressed, which in turn made my stomach ache worse. However, during a meditation class I attended, I was doing a simple breathing exercise and I suddenly felt my stomach ache disappear. Now when I feel an IBS stomach ache coming on, I focus on my breathing, and most of the time, I am able to stop it before it starts. I haven’t determined yet whether this breathing exercise works when I get a stomach ache from something I have eaten, but it certainly works when it is triggered by stress.
In case you are interested, I have listed just a few (of the hundreds) of the relevant news stories below, and also a link to try a very short, simple meditation exercise from the BBC (directly below).
Note: There are many types of meditation, but in this post, I am simply referring to all of them as meditation.
Related videos, news stories, and websites:
Scans ‘show mindfulness meditation brain boost (same link as within story above)
Benefits of meditation – looks like a very interesting website, but I am not very familiar with it so I can’t vouch for anything it says.
Much of my understanding of this topic came from listening to Dr. Davidson speak, but I also referenced two specific articles above. Those are:
Davidson, R.J. & Lutz, A. (2008). Buddha’s Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation. IEEE Signal Process Mag. 25(1): 176–174.
Hölzel, B.K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S.M., Gard, T., Lazar, S.W. 2010. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. 191 (1), 36-43.