Change Your Mind: How Meditation Strengthens the Brain

Then again, … 

On the other hand, …

On second thought, …

Hang on a minute, …

I confess, I have changed my mind about various things throughout the years. Some minor changes and some pretty big. New information and new perspectives often shine a light on a situation and – voila – I see it differently and change my mind.

That is certainly not uncommon. But what if you could do more than simply change your point of view?  What if you could consciously change your brain, in fact strengthening it to make it work better?

What has thoroughly grabbed my attention in the last year is the emerging research about not just changing your point of view but the very real, important and lasting changes to the brain through meditation. With a heightened awareness of cognitive health through the challenges of dear friends and my personal interest in meditation, I find this research markedly hope-filled.

A friend recently pulled me aside and challenged my frankly, “Why should I sign up for your Meditation and Mindfulness class? What’s the big deal? Give me your elevator speech. I am not yet convinced.”

My standard response to this oft-asked question generally includes a quick summary of the sizable number of benefits for a variety of symptoms such as stress reduction, improved sleep, and the fact that there really are readily available tools to quiet your mind and improve your well-being.

“Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard that all before. Tell me something  I don’t know,” he cajoled, arms crossed and foot tapping.

“What if I told you that meditation was like bicep curls for your brain?” I inquired, peering over my glasses.

Now I had his attention.

In an article in February’s New York Times, Gretchen Reynolds wrote about a study led by J. David Creswell, an associate professor of psychology and the director of the Health and Human Performance Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University. This study focused on 35 people who were all unemployed, looking for a job and under a great deal of stress. After baseline testing (brain scan and blood draw), the group was divided in half. During a 3-day retreat, one-half learned mindfulness meditation techniques. The other half learned simple relaxation techniques and also consciously distracted themselves.

Both groups did things like stretching exercises, during which the first group trained in mindfulness paid close attention to their body and mind, all sensations even those that were uncomfortable or unpleasant. The other group talked freely as they exercised, distracted and ignoring their bodies.

From Reynold’s article, the follow-up data was compelling. “At the end of three days, the participants all told the researchers that they felt refreshed and better able to withstand the stress of unemployment. Yet follow-up brain scans showed differences in only those who practiced mindfulness meditation. There was more activity, or communication, among the portions of their brains that process stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm. Four months later, those who had practiced mindfulness showed much lower levels in their blood of a marker of unhealthy inflammation than the relaxation group, even though few were still meditating.”

“Really?! Meditation changes your brain?”  my friend asked. 

“Indeed it does,” I replied, “in everyday ordinary people like us. But don’t just take my word for it. Check out the research.”

That evening I sent him another article this time from the Washington Post by Brigid Schulte called ‘Eight Weeks to a Better Brain.’ The article outlined a study released in 2015 by Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. This study involved people who had never meditated before who experienced an eight week mindfulness-based stress reduction program.  Meditating for only 8 weeks, the results in this group were unprecedented.

After eight weeks, these four areas of the brain were strengthened (thickened) for each member of the group of meditators:

  1. The posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self-relevance.
  2. The left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation.
  3. The temporo parietal junction, or TPJ, which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion.
  4. An area of the brain stem called the Pons, where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.

At the same time, the amygdala became smaller. (This is a good thing.) As part of the brain associated with anxiety, stress and fear, this change to the amygdala was directly correlated to a reduction in stress.

So how long did they meditate to receive these benefits? Nothing herculean. Not hours on end. Only 40 minutes per day.

The next day, I received a call from my friend who wanted to know the dates of my next Meditation and Mindfulness class so he could clear his calendar. He was ready. When I asked him what changed his mind, he said, “I watch what I eat, brush and floss my teeth, I exercise, take care of my personal hygiene, I work out and try to be a good person. But I got to thinking and I realized I am not taking good care of my brain. I do not have a mental hygiene routine!  If I am reading this right, there are skills I can learn and they will serve me well.”

Before he hung up he chuckled and said, “I guess you could say I changed my mind to change my brain.”

Well said.

Are you ready to begin?

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One thought on “Change Your Mind: How Meditation Strengthens the Brain

  1. Elizabeth, wish you were back in Arizona this fall. I would be taking a refresher class! So impressed with the account of your journey. You do inspire! Keep it coming.

    Like

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