Now a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School has shown why.
Initial studies showed Sara Lazar that people who had been meditating for several years had enhanced sensory perception. “[This] makes sense,” she said. “When you’re mindful, you’re paying attention to your breathing, to sounds, to the present moment experience, and shutting cognition down. It stands to reason your senses would be enhanced.”
But Sara also found that meditators had:
“more gray matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and executive decision making.”
But perhaps these people already had brains like that before they started meditating. So Sara then measured the brains of another group of people who had never meditated before, at the start and end of an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction programme.
The results were significant, not just in mental capacity but in the physical size of the brain:
- A thickening of the area of the brain involved in self-definition and self-esteem
- A thickening of the part of the brain that assists in learning, cognition, memory, and management of emotions
- A thickening of the part of the brain involved with keeping perspective, empathy, compassion, and interpersonal exchange
- A thickening of the area that produces the neurotransmitters that drive agitation versus amiability, enabling us to function with greater peace and confidence
- A shrinking of the part of the brain that manages our fight or flight decisions
These students meditated for an average of just under 30 minutes a day, but some said they got benefits from just ten minutes a day.
A daily practice of meditation reduces stress and increases our ability to focus and take decisions. It improves memory, learning, confidence, and interpersonal exchange. No wonder Gandhi said, “I meditate every morning for an hour. When my workload is especially heavy then I get up an hour early and I meditate for two hours.”