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The Benefits of Meditation

New research shows that meditating can enhance brain function no matter what your age

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Senior Woman Meditating

Meditation may be able to improve your memory as you age. — Artiga/Flirt/Corbis

En español | Many people believe that our brain is fully formed by the time we're adults. But over the past decade or so, neuroscientists have discovered otherwise: Throughout life, the brain rewires and reshapes itself in response to experience, environment and training.

To me, one of the most exciting discoveries has been that meditation seems to be a significant and positive brain-changing activity. Consider the evidence: A study by Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital in 2005 showed that a group practicing meditation for about 40 minutes a day had measurably thicker tissue in the left prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain important for cognitive emotional processing and well-being.

Researchers at UCLA Laboratory of Neuro-Imaging compared the brains of experienced meditators with those of a control group of nonmeditators. They found that the meditators' brains contained more gray matter – the tissue responsible for high-level information processing – than those of the nonmeditators, especially in the areas associated with attention, body awareness and the ability to modulate emotional responses.

In a study published in 2010, a team of neuroscientists scanned the brains of volunteers before and after they received eight weeks of training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a type of meditation. The new meditators showed measurable changes in two important brain areas – growth in the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory and learning, and shrinkage in the amygdala, a portion of the brain that initiates the body's response to stress.

An MRI study at Emory University showed that experienced meditators were much more efficient than a nonmeditating control group at dropping extraneous thoughts and focusing on the matter at hand when bombarded by stimuli while performing a task.

The researchers note that the simple practice of focusing attention through meditation may help patients suffering from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions characterized by excessive rumination.

In 2007, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania trained a group of new meditators in MBSR, then compared them with longtime meditators, and with a group of nonmeditators. After eight weeks, the new meditators improved their scores for orienting and for sustaining attention.

Next page: Can meditation treat people with ADHD? »

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