A precedent to this study: more than 30 years ago, at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, John Kabat Zinn demonstrated with pre-and-post brain imaging, that an eight-week course in mindfulness results in shrinking the amygdala, which correlates with a reduction in stress. Buttressing his work, Massachusetts General Hospital researchers published a recent study (Journal of Psychiatry Research: Neuro-imaging, 2011) showing results of eight weeks of daily meditation practice: lessened stress as a function of increased white matter (“wiring” brain’s communication system) pathways around the anterior cingulate cortex. This study revisited a 2010 publication, confirming the “pattern of neural plasticity” (induced by meditation), focusing on body relaxation, breathing, posture, and mental imagery. A 2012 UCLA study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, showed a positive correlation between years of meditation and extent of brain alteration. Benefits of MeditationTheir findings are astonishing: long-term meditators have greater gyrification (folding of brain, with denser gyri and sulci) in the cerebral cortex, the outermost layer of neural tissue. What does this imply? Given their key role in memory, attention, thought, and consciousness, we hypothesize greater gyrification leads to enhanced information processing, e.g. forming decisions, retaining memories, making connections, etc.
Cognitive scientists have long studied “neuro-plasticity,” defined as: what and how we pay attention, what we think, feel, sense and under which circumstances. These mental activities mold and re-structure our brain. As our brain changes, our mind changes as well–and vice-versa, creating a positive feedback loop. These changes occur via many mechanism, e.g. as the father of neuropsychology, Donald Hebb, said, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” What does this mean? Synapses (connections between neurons) become more sensitive and activated, with new synapses forming thicker neural layers. The classic study of this (replicated multiple times) found that learning to drive a taxi in London changes your brain. The taxi drivers-in-training must learn approximately 25,000 streets within a six mile radius, and memorize locations of thousands of places of tourist interest. Half of all trainees fail the rigorous exam. Those who pass, and become experienced drivers, have a thicker hippocampus (visual-spatial memory center). It is this neuro-plasticity that kicks into high gear for people who routinely meditate. They form thicker neuron layers in the insula, a region of the brain getting activated when we focus on subjective states, e.g. our sensations, feelings, etc. Parts of the prefrontal cortex (responsible for controlling attention) also become strengthened. This is how/why meditation changes our brain: via “experience-dependent neuro-plasticity.” This plasticity manifests as: increased amounts of so-called gray matter (information processing) and white matter (“wiring” brain’s communication system).