New neuroscientific research claims to be the first evidence that actual changes in brain structure are associated with meditation: a thicker cerebral cortex in areas involved with attention and sensory processing, including the prefrontal cortex, used for planning complicated cognitive behaviours.
Research from neuroscientist Sara Lazar’s team reported in the Havard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute newsletter claims to be the first evidence that actual changes in brain structure are associated with meditation.
The team, studying a group of American meditation practitioners who meditated for an average of six hours a week over nine years, along with a control group (making the research more relevant to the average American or European than that done with the participation of Tibetan monks), found that the meditators had a thicker cerebral cortex in areas involved with attention and sensory processing, including the prefrontal cortex, used for planning complicated cognitive behaviours.
While the relationship between the thickening cortex and increased cognitive abilities is not clear (it is not the case that “big brain equals superior intelligence”), the areas thickened were the ones corresponding to the activity of meditation, suggesting that while meditating it is as if we were exercising our brains and growing stronger muscles in the areas used.
A further finding was that, while the normal process of ageing involves the thinning of the cortex, in older meditators the thickness of certain small areas of the cortex remained the same as for the younger meditators and control group.
The concept of “use it or lose it” has long been applied to the ageing brain, with elderly people encouraged to keep up their cognitive skills by learning new things, doing puzzles, crosswords, etc. But here, even more excitingly, it appears that we can acquire proficiency in the kinds of skills we did not learn in school, which are maybe even more important in terms of well-being. We can practice awareness, being here now, just dropping the stress and mental antics for a while, and our brains will respond accordingly.
It has to be good news!
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