Recent research has documented several differences in the brain anatomy and physiology of people who meditate regularly, compared to non-meditators. Here’s a look at how meditation may literally build a better brain, whether you’re a monk who has been at it for decades or an everyday meditator who has only been practicing a few weeks.
A New Wrinkle on Brain Folds
The outermost layer of the brain, called the cerebral cortex, is where most of the flashy action happens. It’s the part of the brain responsible for higher mental functions, such as thought, memory, attention, and consciousness. Gyrification is a process by which narrow folds and furrows are created in the cortex. Neuroscientists believe that the more folds there are, the greater the brain’s capacity for doing things such as processing information, making decisions and forming memories. In short, when it comes to the cerebral cortex, wrinkly is a good thing.
A new study led by Eileen Luders, an assistant professor at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, looked at the link between this type of cortical folding and meditation. The researchers compared MRI brain scans of 50 meditators to 50 non-meditators matched for age and sex. The meditators used a variety of meditation methods, such as Zen, Samatha, and Vipassana. They had been practicing between 4 and 46 years; the average was 20 years.
Compared to non-meditators, the meditators had increased gyrification across a wide swath of the cortex. Even more interesting, the longer people had been meditating, the more gyrification there tended to be.
This type of study is only designed to look for associations; it doesn’t prove cause and effect. It’s possible that people who start out with more cortical folding have a greater aptitude for meditation in the first place. But the correlation between years of meditation and degree of folding suggests that causation may also cut the other way: Meditators’ brains may have adapted to meditation practice over the years by creating additional folds.
Bigger, Better Connected Brains
Previous studies by the same research team also found evidence that long-term meditation may change the structure and function of the brain. In one study, MRI scans showed that several areas of the brain were larger, on average, in longtime meditators than in non-meditators. Since our brains naturally tend to shrink as we get older, it’s possible that meditating might help fend off some effects of aging.
In another study, the UCLA team used a specialized brain imaging technique, called diffusion tensor imaging, to look at structural connections between different parts of the brain. They found that long-term meditators seemed to have stronger connections between brain regions. Even better, the enhanced connectivity wasn’t just limited to one or two specific areas. It was seen throughout the whole brain.
Good News for New Meditators
The UCLA research is fascinating, but it focuses on a highly select population: people who have meditated regularly for years and often for decades. What, if anything, can meditation do for the rest of us?
A recent study from the University of Wisconsin-Stout recently addressed that issue. In the study, people were either invited to take part in meditation training or put on a waiting list. Those in the training group averaged just seven hours of meditation training and practice over a five-week period. Yet EEGs showed a shift in the electrical activity of their brains, which was not seen in people who hadn’t taken the training.
People in the training group showed a greater proportion of activity in the left frontal region of the brain during subsequent meditation sessions. Interestingly, other research has shown a link between this pattern of brain activity and positive moods. The fact that the shift to this pattern only took weeks to accomplish is happy news for anyone just getting started with meditation.