Mindfulness builds grey matter in the brain

You’ve heard how good mindfulness is for you, but did you know it helps you grow new brain cells, changes how your brain functions on a day-to-day level, and even resets your perception of pain?

Various studies have drawn the above conclusions, adding to the growing pile of evidence as to why mindfulness meditation works so well for so many people in so many different ways. It starts with neuroscientists’ increasing understanding that the brain is plastic — which means that, unlike your thigh bone, which grows to a certain size and stays that way for the rest of your life, your brain can and does change as you age. That means it’s possible to literally change how you think, even in middle- or old-age. And changing how you think can meaningfully change the way you perceive stress, pain, negative emotions, and even your perspective on life.

This kind of research is now possible due to the increasing availability (and slow-but-sure cost lowering) of various types of brain scans. It’s now feasible for researchers to do brain scans before and after mindfulness meditation sessions, or long- or short-term workshops. And from those scans they can see exactly how and where the brains in a variety of subjects change. If they see similar things changing in the brains of a variety of test subjects (older, younger, male, female, et cetera) researchers then can find a link between those changes and the practice of mindfulness.

Below are a few of the most interesting studies and what they have found.

Reduce pain

In a before-and-after look at the brains of subjects who had regularly meditated for just four days, researchers behind this 2011 study found that the perception of pain was dramatically reduced: How much? Mindfulness meditation “…significantly reduced pain unpleasantness by 57% and pain intensity ratings by 40% when compared to rest.” This was, according to researchers, due to increased activity in areas of the brain involved with regulating the understanding of pain signals, the anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula. In addition to actually feeling less pain, the pain that people felt (what researchers called “pain unpleasantness”) was less intense. That’s because the orbitofrontal cortex was activated— this part of the brain is understood to frame (and reframe) the “contextual evaluation of sensory events” — so pain may still have been present, but it didn’t actually feel so painful.

Grow more brain

A Harvard Medical School study that looked at the brains of 17 study participants before and after an 8-week mindfulness program found that you can actually grow more brain in certain places by doing mindfulness meditation, which sounds amazing: “Analyses…confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR [mindfulness meditation] group compared to the controls.” The study authors go on in detail: “The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.”

Build more brain connections

A 2011 study from UCLA looked specifically at female subjects, and measured the brains (via fcMRI) of two groups — those who did mindfulness meditation for 8 weeks and those who didn’t. They found that among the meditators, there were better connections between the parts of the brains linked with sight and sound, as well as greater focus in those areas. What does that mean? “These findings suggest that 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation training alters intrinsic functional connectivity in ways that may reflect a more consistent attentional focus, enhanced sensory processing, and reflective awareness of sensory experience.”

Modulate emotional response

A 2013 study via the University of Zurich involved giving a short mindfulness session to 24 people while 22 others (the controls) didn’t participate. Researchers found that those who had been given the mindfulness session were less reactive when shown negative imagery. Through fMRIs, the researchers could see that there was simply less stimulation in the parts of the brain involved in processing emotions (the amygdala, and the parahippocampal gyrus) in the meditators, compared to the controls, who got more upset. According to the study abstract, “…more mindful individuals required less regulatory resources to attenuate emotional arousal. Our findings suggest emotion regulatory effects of a short mindfulness intervention on a neurobiological level.” Being able to keep emotionally calm (or at least calmer) in difficult situations can lead to lower stress levels and is physically healthier, since stress hormones are reduced.

credit: Starre Vartan

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