I wanted to re-share this post from a couple of years ago . I hope you enjoy it again!
If you read “mindfulness” and shudder, let me just say, I get it. There are many reasons you may be put off. It could be all the unproven assertions you have heard over the years about the benefits of meditation. It might be the religious trappings that used to accompany mediation practice – gongs, bells, incense and the like. It might be that you tried it, couldn’t get your thoughts to stop running a mile a minute, so you stopped.
If you are put off by the whole notion of mindfulness, or if you have thought about giving it a try but haven’t got around to it, consider this: Solid scientific research has proven that mindfulness practices create positive changes to your brain with significant benefits for working-memory, focus, and reduced stress.
My research into scientific studies of the impact of various mindfulness practices on the brain led me to Sara W. Lazr, Ph.D. who heads the neuroscience lab at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Lazar was first introduced to mindfulness practices when she was recovering from a sports injury and signed up for a yoga class. She reports that she enjoyed the class but and was skeptical of the claims made by the yoga teacher about all the psychological benefits of yoga practice. Lazar decided to conduct research into the scientific literature on the benefits of yoga and mediation practices. What she found was that study after study proved that regular mindfulness practices (mediation, yoga) offered the following benefits:
- Decreased Stress
- Reduced symptoms associated with depression, anxiety disorders, pain, and insomnia
- Enhanced ability to pay attention
- Increased quality of life
Intrigued, Lazar set out to study the actual changes to the brain induced by mindfulness practice, using MRI to map the brains of study participants.
Here’s what she and her team of researchers discovered in the brains of study participants who began and maintained a mindfulness practice for eight weeks:
- Increase in gray matter density in the prefrontal cortex leading to positive increases in working memory and cognition.
- Increase in the size of the left hippocampus the area of the brain that assists with learning, memory, and emotional regulation.
- Increase in the size of an area of the brain known as the Temporal-parietal Junction that is brain region associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion.
- Decreases in gray matter density in the amygdala (fight and flight center of the brain) along with a reduction in the overall stress levels in test subjects.
To learn more about Lazar’s research:
The bottom line is that regular meditation or other present-moment-awareness practices can cause positive changes in your brain.
Also, a tip if you have a mind (like mine) that has a hard time settling into the present: that is o.k. and to be expected. Mindfulness practice isn’t about sitting in complete stillness, rather it is about the process of paying attention to the present moment; then the mind flying off into the past, future, or other imagining; noticing the mind has strayed; and bringing awareness back to the present moment. This is the cycle you will run throughout the meditation.
For those of you interested in taking a deep dive into the scientific literature, here is a selection of scholarly articles describing the research and findings.
- Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191(1), 36-43.
- Change in Brainstem Gray Matter Concentration Following a Mindfulness-Based Intervention is Correlated with Improvement in Psychological Well-Being. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, March 2014.
- Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdale. Social Cognitive Affect Neuroscience, 5, 11-17.