Sara Lazar is a neuroscientist as Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and was one of the first scientists to test the benefits of meditation and mindfulness in brain scans. What she found was surprising. Meditation literally rewires your brain.
The first study found that long-term meditators have an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex. She also found that meditators had more gray matter in their frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and executive decision making.
Lazar concluded: “when you’re mindful, you’re paying attention to your breathing, to sounds, to the present moment experience, and shutting cognition down. It stands to reason your senses would be enhanced.”
In her second study she found differences in brain volume for meditators after eight weeks of meditating consistently every day. Meditators found thickening in four regions of the brain:
1. The posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self relevance.
2. The left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation.
3. The temporo parietal junction, or TPJ, which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion.
4. The Pons, where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.
The part of the brain responsible for anxiety, fear and stress got smaller in people who regularly meditated.
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What do the results mean for you?
After demonstrating in her research that mindfulness and meditation rewires the brain, Lazar has the following advice to share:
“Mindfulness is just like exercise. It’s a form of mental exercise, really. And just as exercise increases health, helps us handle stress better and promotes longevity, meditation purports to confer some of those same benefits.
“But, just like exercise, it can’t cure everything. So the idea is, it’s useful as an adjunct therapy. It’s not a standalone. It’s been tried with many, many other disorders, and the results vary tremendously – it impacts some symptoms, but not all. The results are sometimes modest. And it doesn’t work for everybody.
“It’s still early days for trying to figure out what it can or can’t do.”
Given our present limitations in understanding how we can use meditation and mindfulness to improve the quality of our lives, Lazar suggests that the most important thing to do is find a good teacher. Meditation is very simple but also extraordinarily complex.
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