You may think of meditation as an esoteric practice with little to no grounding in reality. However, a number of recent studies have found that meditation can actually physically restructure the brain.
One study put participants through an 8 week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. Since most people have only a vague understanding of what meditation is, here’s a description of what participants did (taken directly from the study):
It consists of eight weekly group meetings lasting two and a half hours each, plus one full day (6.5 hours) during the sixth week of the course. Formal mindfulness training exercises aim at developing the capacity for mindfulness (awareness of present-moment experiences with a compassionate, non-judgmental stance) and include a body scan, mindful yoga, and sitting meditation. During the body scan attention is sequentially guided through the entire body, observing with non-judgmental awareness the sensations in each region and ending with an awareness of the body “as a complete whole”. The mindful yoga typically contains gentle stretching exercises and slow movements that are often coordinated with the breath, with emphasis placed on bringing full awareness to the moment-to-moment experience and a non-harming attitude towards the body. Participants are encouraged to investigate what feels appropriate for themselves and to honor their body’s limitations. Sitting meditation practices typically begin with awareness of the sensations of breathing, then evolve to include awareness of different modalities (such as sounds, sight, taste, other body sensations, thoughts and emotions). Later, emphasis is given to open awareness meditation, where the field of awareness is expanded to include anything that appears in consciousness, or a simple awareness of one’s presence in the here and now.
After 8 weeks of the program, gray matter concentrations in the brain actually increased in the hippocampus, posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR group versus the control group. These parts of the brain control memory, learning, self-referential processing, perspective taking and emotions.
A meta analysis also found that mediation led to physical restructuring in 8 different regions of the brain. Specifically,
these include regions key to meta-awareness and introspection (RLPFC/BA 10), exteroceptive and interoceptive body awareness (sensory cortices and insular cortex, respectively), memory consolidation and reconsolidation (hippocampus), self and emotion regulation (anterior and mid-cingulate, and orbitofrontal cortex), and finally intra- and interhemispheric communication (superior longitudinal fasciculus and corpus callosum, respectively).
As one researcher said, “meditation is fundamentally no different than other forms of skill acquisition that can induce plastic changes in the brain.” So, there might be something to meditation after all. The participants in the study spent about 27 minutes a day practicing mindfulness exercises. So start meditating for about a half an hour a day and see what happens!
Note: If you want to take the exact class that participants took, here‘s the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s website.
Davidson, Richard J., and Antoine Lutz. “Buddha’s brain: Neuroplasticity and meditation.” IEEE signal processing magazine 25.1 (2008): 176.
Fox, Kieran CR, et al. “Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners.” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 43 (2014): 48-73.