Sara Lazar is a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Among the first scientists to examine the effects of meditation, she has become a leading researcher in the field and one of the first to point its brain-altering effects.
As she explains in an interview with Washington Post, her first encounter with meditation was purely coincidental, after starting doing yoga as a form of physical therapy because of running injuries.
Like many other Westerners, she saw yoga as a pure form of stretching and its mental effects (and those of meditation) as a placebo triggered by ‘wild claims.’
However, after noticing the positive effects these practices had on her wellbeing (especially the meditative practice), she decided to consult the research available back then – only to learn that meditation indeed contributed to a decrease in stress, depression, anxiety, pain and insomnia, and an increase in the quality of life.
Her fascination with supporting research and the positive effects meditation had on her led her to switch to researching its benefits more thoroughly in her post-doc.
What she found was that meditation not only reduced stress, but it also preserved parts of the brain and reversed the brain’s aging process of those who practiced it regularly – it literally changed the brain.
In the first study she made, she and her team examined the brains of long-term meditators and compared them to people who didn’t meditate.
They found that the meditators had an increased amount of gray matter in various parts of the brain:
The insula: This is the part of the brain linked to perception, motor control, cognitive functioning, perception, self-awareness, compassion, empathy and interpersonal experience.
The sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex, which was rather obvious, as she explains, bearing in mind that meditation is a mindfulness activity which enhances the senses.
The frontal cortex: associated with executive decision making and the working memory.
However, the most fascinating thing about this discovery was that the 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex as a 25-year-old. As we age, she notes, our cortex shrinks, and it becomes harder to remember things and figure things out.
This was not the case with those who meditated regularly, though. They seemed to have retained and even reversed the atrophy of these areas of the brain.
Of course, the study had its limitations, as it was not established whether these people had more gray matter before they started meditating. Therefore, she decided to make another study where she would examine how meditation affects the brains of those who had never meditated before.
In the second study, she invited people who had never done any meditation before and put them through a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. After only 8 weeks, they observed astounding changes in the participants’ brains.
They discovered thickening in four regions:
The posterior cingulate, responsible for mind wandering and self-relevance;
The left hippocampus, responsible for cognition, memory, learning, and emotional regulation;
The temporoparietal junction, responsible for empathy, compassion, and perspective talking;
The Pons, an area of the brain stem where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.
Which is more, they observed that the amygdala of the participants who went through the program had significantly reduced. The amygdala is responsible for the fight or flight part of the brain and is directly related to fear, anxiety, and stress in general.
In other words, meditation literally changed their brains after only 8 weeks of daily practice for, as Lazar explains, averagely 27 minutes.
HOW TO MEDITATE THE EASY WAY
As Lazar explains, meditation should be regarded as an exercise – “Exercising three times a week is great. But if all you can do is just a little bit every day, that’s a good thing, too.”
In other words, don’t get discouraged if you don’t manage to meditate every day (or within the timeframe you have set).
The easiest meditation technique is one where you sit comfortably (it doesn’t have to be cross-legged) and you focus on your breathing.
The point of meditation is not to ‘stop thinking,’ as many believe. Thoughts cannot be controlled, but your focus can. Every time your thoughts start drifting in various directions, your job is to return your focus to your breathing and let the intrusive thoughts go away.
Start your meditation practice with 10 minutes a day and increase the length as you progress. Sometimes you will be able to maintain your focus for only 5 minutes, and sometimes you will be able to meditate for much longer.
The point is that you have invested into yourself no matter how long the meditation lasted. Introduce it as a habit after you brush your teeth in the morning, or after you get back from work. You can even meditate before you go to sleep, although maintaining focus may prove more difficult after an exhausting day.
Meditation is not a religious practice, although it has been present among different religions in different forms. It is a mindfulness practice which reduces stress and preserves your brain. Spread the awareness!