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The Benefits of Meditation

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

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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