Meditation for a Healthier Brain
PUBLISHED: Monday, March 22, 2021

Meditation for a Healthier Brain 

Meditation and yoga are often portrayed as beneficial for their effects on mood and physical health. Numerous studies have been done on the physical impact of mindful activities—more than enough for us to understand the correlation between the two. But the mental health benefits have been, until recently, less studied. Longtime practitioners will often use qualifiers like “healthier” or “sharper” to describe the benefits they perceive, but these are mostly subjective. Within the last five years, though, several researchers have undertaken the task of quantifying how mindful practices make the brain healthier. The results are promising, to say the least.

Harvard Medical School

Sara Lazar, a post-doctoral researcher at Harvard University, published results of two studies related to mindfulness in 2015. She and her team found that long-term meditators in their 50s had frontal cortexes the same size as an average 25-year-old, which is significant because the frontal cortex is known to shrink with age. That reduction in size/mass is thought to impair our memories and decision-making abilities as we get older, so the notion that mindful activities could help stave off (or potentially reverse) the process is incredibly encouraging.

Lazar and her team’s second study looked at the more immediate effects of mindful practice, and the results are surprising. After just eight weeks of consistent, daily meditation, the team found an appreciable thickening of grey matter at the posterior cingulate (which governs concentration and self-relevance), the left hippocampus (responsible for learning, cognition, recall, and emotional regulation), and the temporoparietal junction (which governs empathy and compassion). They also noted a significant reduction in the size of the amygdala, which translated to less anxiety and fear in participants. The fact that so many positive, measurable changes came in such a short period of time is astounding.

University of California, Los Angeles

Researchers at UCLA also published a study related to meditation and physical changes in the brain in 2015, and their results largely reinforce those of the Harvard team. They found that meditation seems to “preserve” entire regions of the brain through the aging process, rendering grey matter losses from early adulthood to middle age almost negligible. The study specifically compared individuals who identified as long-time meditators (20+ years) against same-aged individuals who did not meditate and a control group of young adults who did not meditate. Like the Harvard team before them, UCLA’s researchers found that the brains of the long-time meditators bore a close physical resemblance to the brains of much younger people—neither group exhibited nearly the same loss of brain mass as the middle-aged, non-mindful group.

While these are only two studies, taken together they certainly point toward the same trend. Mindful practice is truly, quantifiably good for our brains; it doesn’t just make us feel better, it actually makes our brains healthier and improves quality of life throughout our lifespans.