Meditation is known for many physiological and mental benefits. But can it physically modify your brain? This question has intrigued scientists because if it does, meditation can be used for certain therapies that need structural changes in the brain, such as reversal of brain ageing or better emotional control.
In this article, we will discuss whether the brains of people who meditate have structural differences from those of non-meditators.
Many cultures around the world have had a tradition of meditation for millennia. Sages have practised it for spiritual attainment and savants have used it for increasing memory and focus.
Explaining meditation in a written article is a tough task, like telling what a giraffe looks like to a Mongolian kid. Some eloquent descriptions talk about meditation as the connection between the mind and the body, which is as enlightening as knowing that wormholes can help with time travel.
There is no single definition of meditation and can involve many actions or goals. Some people focus on a sensation such as breathing, a chant, a phrase, or an image. Some others aim to be mindful (paying non-judgemental attention to the present moment). A few others try to find inner calm, gratefulness, or compassion.
A study found that people resort to meditation for 77 different reasons.
Benefits of Meditation
Meditation reduces stress, anxiety, and burnout. It increases psychological well-being and cooperation with others. Meditation improves the quality of sleep, attention span, and immunity; and it reduces panic attacks, chronic pain, high blood pressure, and heart disease risk.
In 2008, a meditation study showed stronger activation levels in a part of the brain associated with empathy. So meditation changes electrical signals in the brain but does it change the brain itself?
Meditation and Neuroplasticity
In 2011, a paper was published with a major claim: those who meditated for half an hour a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in grey-matter density in different parts of the brain:
- The brain part associated with learning, memory, and compassion increased in size suggesting better recollection and empathy.
- The brain part associated with stress and anxiety reduced in size indicating decreased fear and worry.
This paper was seminal for multiple reasons. It showed that meditation could physically change your brain. Even better, the changes did not need years or decades of practice—any novice doing a short two-month course meditating 25 minutes a day could achieve all the benefits.
It opened floodgates of therapeutic options—you could reverse brain ageing, increase learning and empathy in just about two months. Dozens of articles followed, praising this ability of meditation.
Some scientists built upon these findings:
- In 2013, a study showed meditation improved focus and memory.
- In 2015, a research paper showed meditation reduced brain ageing by lowering the loss of grey matter from the brain.
- In 2019, a paper was published showing meditation can help with clinical depression and anxiety disorders.
It looked like meditation was a wonder pill for a layperson—partake of it for a few days and get your problems solved.
There were a few problems though:
- The 2011 study trivialised meditation—anyone with its cursory knowledge and action could gain immensely. There was no need for years of practice. In contrast, other therapeutic methods such as learning to play a musical instrument needed prolonged effort;
- The study had only a dozen participants; and
- Instead of comparing meditation with other positive brain treatments (such as diet or exercise), the study compared meditation with no meditation.
If you are a non-scientist, you would think the last point was simply quibbling over small things. But such errors are fatal flaws in research design. For example, your brain changes with anything new: Exercise can change its size and structure, and so can learning to play a musical instrument or speak a new language. The brain modifications will be a feature of ‘new learning’ and not of meditation.
The problem with such flawed studies is that once accepted, they become the basis for wrong understanding and advice for decades before the faults are uncovered. Luckily, some other researchers noticed this issue, redesigned the experiment and studied brain changes for seven years.
The scientists found that the brain ‘does not’ change in size in eight weeks.
The scientists rightfully concluded that changing the brain volume and neuron density should take thousands of hours—read, years—of meditation practice. Expecting them with just twenty-five hours of effort is not possible.
So true! Shouldn’t it be always?
Interestingly, the study found that a short course of meditation did change a part of the brain, reducing stress and fear. So meditation could bring about functional and behavioural changes over the short term.
What about the other studies done after 2011 about brain ageing, memory, and depression? Why did they show positive results? All of them involved expert meditators with years of practice, not novice learners.
- The behavioural benefits of meditation can come in a short period of time. Inexperienced meditators can quickly achieve a reduction in stress, anxiety, and chronic pain and an increase in focus, attention span, and memory.
- Physiological changes to the brain would take years of meditation practice. Improvements in emotional control, empathy, and a reduction in brain ageing are possible only for serious and regular practitioners.
To Read More
- The Scientist: Eight Weeks of Meditation Doesn’t Change the Brain, Study Finds
- PsychCentral: How Meditation Changes the Brain
- Forbes: 7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change The Brain
- Fortune: How long you need to meditate to see results for your body and brain
- University of Washington Medicine: How Meditation Affects Your Brain and Boosts Well-Being
- Harvard University: When science meets mindfulness
- The Harvard Gadget: Eight weeks to a better brain
- On this Website: Obesity Can Cause Your Brain To Age Much Faster
First published on: 31st January 2011
Image credit: javi_indy on Freepik
Last updated on: 17th July 2023