Meditation and the Brain - The Bipolar Question of the Week

John McManamy Health Guide
  • A week or two ago, I mentioned in passing that I have been viewing TED talks on my desktop. Call me crazy - listening to highly intelligent thinkers and doers expound on cool and inspirational stuff does more for me than enduring the bitchiness of the judges on American Idol.


    Yesterday, a friend sent me a link to a talk on how meditation shapes our brains. The speaker was a Harvard neuroscientist, Sara Lazar. Dr Lazar got into the topic quite by accident, when she started taking yoga classes as a replacement for the wear and tear of marathon training. The yoga teacher would extoll on how the practice increases your compassion and opens your heart, and so on.

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    Dr Lazar would roll her eyes. She was there to stretch. But, crazy thing, after a couple of weeks she noticed that indeed she was more open-hearted and calmer and better able to handle difficult situations and so on. Curious, she did what we all do - she started Googling (or its academic equivalent). Her first revelation was there was actually a body of decent research on this stuff. Then, because she is a neuroscientist with access to brain-scan machines, she really went to town.


    We start with the concept of neuroplasticity, namely we can change our brains through practice-practice-practice. Building on other studies, Dr Lazar put meditators in a scanner and compared their brains to non-meditators. Lo and behold, the meditators had more gray matter in certain regions of the brain than the non-meditators. This included a cortical area which involved executive decision-making and working memory. Not only that, the grey matter mass of the older meditators was about the same as that of the average younger brain, strongly suggesting that meditation slows down the aging process.


    In a second study, Dr Lazar compared before-and-after scans of non-meditators trained to meditate. Guess what? - after eight weeks there was more grey matter in the hippocampus (learning and memory and emotion regulation) and temporo-parietal junction (important for perspective-taking and empathy and compassion). Significantly, the amygdala (which induces fear and stress) was smaller.


    Concluded Dr Lazar: “So the idea that I would like to share with you today is that meditation can literally change your brain.”


    How cool is that?


    Question: Meditation, yoga, related activity. Share your experiences, share your thoughts. 


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Published On: February 02, 2013