Does the brain benefit from mindful meditation?

It’s the beginning of February, and hopefully those of us who set goals for 2015 are on track. One of the things on my list for this year is to try mindful meditation. In a typical modern-day lifestyle it doesn’t seem surprising that taking some time each day to relax and clear the mind can show immediate improvements in focus and reduce stress levels. But are there any neurological benefits which can be longer lasting?

Meditating Buddha By Wikipedia Loves Art participant "Opal_Art_Seekers_4" [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Meditating Buddha By Wikipedia Loves Art participant “Opal_Art_Seekers_4” [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s worth acknowledging that there are several forms of meditation. I’ve been reading about mindful meditation, or focused attention. The goal of this practice is to keep the mind in the present moment, usually focusing on something simple like breathing. Sustaining a single thought without straying can certainly be hard work! It doesn’t, therefore, seem too surprising that consistent practice might be ‘training the brain.’

Several studies have shown that practicing mindful meditation is correlated with physical changes within the brain, especially changes to grey matter volume. Grey matter refers to neuron cell bodies and indicates neuron density. People who meditate have increased neuron density within the hippocampus (a structure integral to memory), brain stem (involved in regulating breathing and heart rate), and the frontal lobe (the location of several cognitive functions e.g. self-control), as well as decreased density in the amygdala (involved in anxiety and stress responses). Incredibly even just 8 weeks of practice appears to cause significant anatomical changes. These changes in form have been demonstrated using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and supported by behavioural data showing improved performance in related functions. There have even been suggestions that maintaining grey matter volume through mindful meditation has neuroprotective effects, helping to reduce age-related decline in cognitive function.

Studies have also demonstrated general improvements in mood and decreased stress levels from meditation in patients (e.g. multiple sclerosis and cancer) and healthy populations, possibly due to alterations in neural metabolites. Although significant time commitments were required in some studies (up to 5 hours a day), it also seems that 10 – 20 minutes a day can produce benefits.

So the evidence so far for neurological benefits seems fairly compelling. However it is important to keep in mind that in this field of research it is difficult to have placebo controlled and blinded studies, so we do have to interpret the research accordingly. In addition, the findings of structural differences in the brain are encouraging, but unfortunately correlation does not necessarily imply causation. Nevertheless, as there seems to be no harm associated with the practice and suggestions of benefit, potentially even long term, I’m off to find a quiet space for 20 minutes of mindful meditation!

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