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November 16, 2021

Research on meditation and the brain has been ongoing for a number of years, with new studies being published almost every week showing a new benefit of meditation. Or rather, an ancient benefit that is only now being confirmed with fMRI or EEG. The practice appears to have an amazing variety of neurological benefits - from changes in gray matter volume, to decreased activity in the "I" centers of the brain, to improved connectivity between brain regions. Below are some of the most exciting studies in recent years showing that meditation does indeed produce measurable changes in our most important organ. Of course, skeptics might ask, what good are a few changes in the brain if the psychological effects are not shown at the same time? Fortunately, there's good evidence for that too: studies show that meditation helps alleviate our subjective feelings of anxiety and depression, and improves attention, concentration, and overall mental well-being.

Meditation helps preserve the aging brain

Meditation Gehirn Stress

Last week, a UCLA study found that the brains of long-term meditators are better preserved as they age than those of non-meditators. Participants who had meditated for an average of 20 years had greater gray matter volume throughout the brain - although older meditators still had some volume loss compared to younger meditators, it was not as pronounced as in non-meditators. "We had expected rather small and marked effects in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditation," says study author Florian Kurth. "What we observed instead was a widespread effect of meditation that spanned regions throughout the brain."

Meditation reduces activity in the brain's "ego center"

Stress free

One of the most interesting studies in recent years, conducted at Yale University, found that mindfulness meditation reduces activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN), the brain network responsible for mind wandering and self-referential thoughts - also known as the "monkey mind." The DMN is active when we are not thinking about anything in particular, when our thoughts simply wander from one thought to the next. Since mind wandering is usually associated with unhappiness, brooding, and worrying about the past and the future, many people aim to curb it. Several studies have shown that meditation, through its calming effect on the DMN, seems to do just that. And even when thoughts wander, meditators are better able to disengage because of the new connections that form.

A study conducted last year at Johns Hopkins University examined the link between mindfulness meditation and its ability to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and pain. Researcher Madhav Goyal and his team found that the effect size of meditation was moderate at 0.3. If that doesn't sound like much, keep in mind that the effect size of antidepressants is also 0.3, which makes the effect of meditation seem pretty good. After all, meditation is an active form of brain training. "Many people have the idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing," Goyal says. "But that's not true. Meditation is an active training of the mind to heighten awareness, and different meditation programs approach it differently." Meditation is not a cure-all for depression, as no other treatment is, but it is one of the tools that can help manage symptoms.

Meditation can lead to volume changes in key areas of the brain

Meditation vorteil

In 2011, Sara Lazar and her team at Harvard found that mindfulness meditation can actually change the structure of the brain: Eight weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) led to an increase in cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory, as well as in certain brain regions involved in emotion regulation and self-observation processing. The volume of brain cells also decreased in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety and stress - and these changes were consistent with participants' self-assessments of their stress levels, suggesting that meditation changes not only the brain but also our subjective perceptions and feelings. A follow-up study by Lazar's team even found that after meditation training, changes in brain areas associated with mood and arousal were also linked to improvements in how participants said they felt - i.e., their psychological well-being. So for those who say that activated blobs in the brain don't necessarily mean anything, our subjective experience - improved mood and well-being - does indeed seem to change with meditation.

Even a few days of training improve concentration and attention

Konzentration von Meditation

Concentration problems are not just a children's disorder - they also affect millions of adults, with or without an ADD diagnosis. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, one of the core benefits of meditation is that it improves attention and concentration: a recent study found that just a few weeks of meditation training improved participants' concentration and memory performance on the Test of Verbal Reasoning on the GRE. In fact, the score improvement was equivalent to 16 percentage points, which is nothing to sneeze at. Since strong focus of attention (on an object, idea, or activity) is one of the central goals of meditation, it's not that surprising that meditation also boosts cognitive skills on the job - but it's nice to see science confirming it. And everyone can use a little extra support on standardized tests.

Meditation reduces anxiety - and social anxiety.

Kein Stress von Meditation

Many people start meditating because it helps them reduce stress, and there's a lot of good evidence to support that argument. There is a very recent subcategory of meditation that has already been mentioned, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness (and now offered nationwide), which aims to lower a person's stress levels physically and mentally. Studies have shown that this program helps reduce anxiety years after the initial 8-week course. Research has also shown that mindfulness meditation, as opposed to focusing solely on the breath, can reduce anxiety - and that these changes appear to be mediated by brain regions associated with self-centered ("me-centered") thoughts. Mindfulness meditation has also been shown to help people with social anxiety: a team at Stanford University found that MBSR causes changes in brain regions involved in attention, as well as alleviating symptoms of social anxiety.

Meditation can help with addiction

Krankheit verhinderen

A growing number of studies have shown that meditation can be very effective in recovery from various types of addiction due to its effects on the self-control regions of the brain. For example, one study compared mindfulness training with the American Lung Association's program for smoking cessation (FFS). It found that people who learned mindfulness were much more likely to quit smoking at the end of the training and at 17-week follow-up than participants in the traditional treatment. This could be because meditation helps people "decouple" the state of craving from smoking, so that one doesn't always have to lead to the other, but that the "wave" of craving can be fully experienced and lived through until it passes. Other research has found that mindfulness training, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), and mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) can be helpful in treating other forms of addiction.

Short meditation breaks can help kids in school

Meditation hilfe beim Lernen

For brain development, meditation holds as much promise as it does for adults, if not more. Educators and researchers are increasingly interested in offering meditation and yoga to school children who struggle with common stressors at school and often additional stress and trauma outside of school. Some schools have begun incorporating meditation into their daily routines, and with good success: one San Francisco school district implemented a twice-daily meditation program in some of its at-risk schools - and saw suspensions drop and average grades and attendance increase. Studies have confirmed the cognitive and emotional benefits of meditation for school children, but more probably needs to be done before it becomes more mainstream.

How often do you meditate?

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