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This is Your Brain on Mindfulness Meditation

Participating in an 8-week mindfulness meditation program appears to make measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress according to Sara Lazar, Ph.D., the study’s senior author in a press release.

A group of Harvard neuroscientists interested in mindfulness meditation have reported that brain structures change after only eight weeks of meditation practice.

“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation,  practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day.”

For the study, neuroscientists enrolled 16 people in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course. The participants received audio recordings containing 45-minute guided mindfulness meditations  including the body scan, yoga, and sitting meditation and were instructed to practice daily at home. They were also taught to practice mindfulness informally by bringing their awareness, mindfully to routine activities that are mostly done mindlessly or automatically such as eating, walking, washing the dishes, taking a shower, and so on. On average, the meditation group participants spent an average of 27 minutes a day practicing some form of mindfulness.

Magnetic resonance images (MRI scans) of everyone’s brains were taken before and after they completed the meditation training, and a control group of people who didn’t do any mindfulness training also had their brains scanned. After completing the mindfulness course, all participants reported significant improvement in measures of mindfulness, such as “acting with awareness” and “non-judging.”

mindfulness meditation brain function

The MRI scans show startling evidence that mindfulness participants brains were affected with increased gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus, the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction and the cerebellum these brain regions involved in learning and memory, emotion regulation, sense of self and perspective taking.

 

Britta Hölzel, the lead author on the paper says,

“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.”

Sarah Lazar also noted,

“This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”

Here’s Sarah Lazar TEDx talk discussing the findings in this video:

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