The Rumor: The benefits of meditation are mainly spiritual
In an age when multitasking is a way (and fact) of life, sitting with your eyes closed for half an hour and focusing on your breathing may not seem like the best use of your time. If that’s the way you feel, you’re probably under the assumption that the key benefits of meditation are short-term and of the spiritual variety (which many people take as code for “there’s no real proof this helps”). Even diehard meditators tend to talk about the practice’s rejuvenating and relaxing benefits in almost mystical terms.
The Verdict: Meditation can create long-term positive changes in the brain
Many psychologists and meditators are convinced that regular meditation contributes to neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change by increasing the number of neurons and neural connections (also known as gray matter) in response to experience. Madeline Cretella of Staten Island, New York, is one such believer. She began meditating 30 years ago when she was battling breast cancer, and swears that it was instrumental in helping her overcome the disease. “I had a friend give me a book by Dr. Bernie Siegel, who wrote about how meditation can help cancer patients think themselves well,” Cretella remembers. “I would use creative visualization and picture chemotherapy as a waterfall cleansing my body of the disease. Most people throw up from chemotherapy, but I never did — because I thought of it as my friend. It was such a powerful thing to know that I was playing an active role in making myself well.”
But the million-dollar question is: Does mindfulness meditation — wherein one focuses all attention and awareness on one thing, such as their breathing, a word or an object — have the power to physiologically transform the brain to help alleviate things like stress, anxiety and depression?
“Studies show that regular meditation helps to build up gray matter in three key regions in the brain that can have a huge impact in improving your life,” says Rick Hanson, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist and the author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom. The first of these areas is the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain just behind your forehead), which is instrumental in regulating feelings and impulses, as well as in controlling mood and attention. (“The increased ability to control attention is especially important,” says Hanson, “because, when you think about it, being depressed or anxious means that your brain is being hijacked by these negative concerns.”) The second area is the hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays a major role in learning and memory. (“The hippocampus is responsible for creating a context for things, putting things in perspective, helping us hold things in the big picture — which is really important for not being stressed,” notes Hanson.) And the third brain area that meditation strengthens is the insula, which is instrumental in emotion, self-awareness and interpersonal experience — or, as Hanson terms it, “tuning in to ourselves and to others.”
So how exactly does meditation pump up the brain and accomplish all of these wonderful things? “People normally lose about 10,000 brain cells a day, which can lead to a thinning of the cortex — a layer around the outside of the brain,” Hanson explains. “As we age, this cortical thinning causes us to get slower and start forgetting stuff, among other effects. But research shows that people who routinely practice meditation did not have a thinner cortex in those three key brain areas that affect memory, sense of self, stress, anxiety and even depression. They used it, so they did not lose it.”
The research Hanson is referring to includes a study published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. Researchers examined two groups — one wherein subjects meditated for 30 minutes a day over an eight-week period, and one wherein they didn’t meditate at all — and used MRI brain scans to measure the before and after state of each participant’s brain. What they found is that those who meditated experienced substantial increases in gray-matter density in the hippocampus, insula and prefrontal cortex, while simultaneously seeing a decrease in gray matter in the amygdala, an area of the brain closely tied to stress and anxiety. (Hanson calls it “the alarm bell of the brain.”) Those who didn’t meditate saw no significant change in gray matter.
What’s more, Hanson says that regular meditation has been shown to reduce stress-inducing cortisol levels in the brain and — when used in conjunction with psychotherapy — to prevent relapse in those battling serious depression. “Major depression usually comes in episodes, and once you get through an episode, you obviously don’t want to have another one,” he says. “Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression is very effective for reducing relapse — even better than medication.”
OK, now that we’ve established that meditation can have concrete physiological benefits, how exactly does one go about, you know, doing it? Here are a few pointers:
1. Start small. Just as you wouldn’t want to run 15 miles on your first day of marathon training, you probably won’t want to meditate for three hours straight right off the bat. “Commit to one minute a day, and do it, and make it real,” says Hanson.
2. Keep it simple. As for what to do during that minute of meditation, “pick something like a saying or a mantra or maybe [focusing on] the sensations of breath,” suggests Hanson. “While you’re grounded in the present with the object of your attention, you’re aware of what’s flying through your mind, but you’re just disengaging from it. You’re not chasing after what’s pleasant or struggling with what’s unpleasant. Instead of being in the movie, you’re watching the movie.”
3. Add minutes. Gradually increase the amount of time you spend meditating to two 10-20 minute sessions a day, one in the morning and another at night before bed. “You can even do it on the subway or bus during your commute,” suggests Hanson.
Meditating and commuting at the same time? Sounds like a multitasker’s dream.