Millions of people around the world claim that meditation has transformed their lives. But for centuries, only anecdotal evidence was available to back up those claims. Now, scientific support is emerging from well-designed studies which include brain scans. Some research suggests that meditating as little as 20 minutes a day can affect the function and structure of the brain in a positive way. Meditation increases attention span and focus, improves memory, and dulls the perception of pain.
Having spent an hour meditating this morning, I’m hoping the researchers are right. But my family and friends might argue that I ‘m proof that meditating DOESN’T do much good for the brain. I admit: this meditator won’t win any prizes for attention span or memory.
But let’s get back to the bigger picture. During the past 20 years, scientists have shown great interest in studying how and why meditation works. The findings of this research are summarized in the current issue of Neurology Now.
Your Brain on Meditation: Good New for Us Seniors
This surge in research is a result of neurologists’ discovery that meditation produces measurable changes in the brain. For example, in a 2011 study, researchers found that people who participated in an eight-week mindfulness meditation program experienced increased density in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self-worth, empathy, and response to stress.
In a 2006 study that I particularly liked, researchers at Harvard, Yale, and MIT found that experienced meditators grew bigger brains than non-meditators. In at least one area of gray matter, the thickening was more pronounced in senior meditators than in younger ones!
The Neurology Now article confirms this finding. Leading neurology researcher and author Alexander Mauskop says:
When researchers compared the brains of normal aging adults and same-age serious meditators, they found that the brains of the meditators did not shrink. What we accept as a normal process — the shrinking of the brain as you get older — may not be necessarily normal.
All That Self-Talk Chatter: Give It A Rest!
Recently, meditation researchers have investigated how meditation impacts what they call the brain’s default mode network (DMN), which includes the self-talk chatter that’s always in the background as we go about our day… the thoughts that mostly focus on the past and the future: “Why did I say something that stupid?” or “I have so much work to do this week” or “This pain will only get worse!”
A recent study comparing the DMN brain areas of meditators and non-meditators found signs suggesting that meditating on a regular basis enhances the ability to limit negative self-talk, like dwelling on past mistakes or imagining future problems. The meditators more successfully stayed in “the now.”
“Shutting your brain off for portions of the day — for example, through meditation — may be a very healthy activity for your brain over the long term,” Dr. Mauskop says.
Pain and the Meditating Brain
Several studies confirm that regular meditators experience less pain than non-meditators. A 2011 study reported in the Journal of Neuroscience found that newbie meditators showed a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness after just a few short sessions of mindfulness meditation training. These pain-reduction percentages put meditation ahead of morphine, which typically reduces pain by about 25 percent.
Rather than engaging in the fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system in anticipation of pain, meditators can learn to accept the sensation of pain. Once they do, pain no longer grips their minds. It becomes another experience that comes and goes.
The findings in these recent studies will come as no surprise to Jon Kabat-Zinn, whose books — particularly Wherever You Go, There You Are — have made him my meditation guru. He founded the Stress Reduction Program at the University of Massachusetts in 1979. Over 19,000 people have taken the eight-week course, which utilizes mindfulness meditation. Most participants report experiencing a significant reduction in pain and stress as a result of the program. The clinic was featured in the 1993 PBS series Healing and the Mind with Bill Moyers.