To what extent does learning to meditate actually change the structure of the brain, and how quickly does it start to happen? That has been one of the central questions emerging from mindfulness research over the last decade. This January, however, Harvard published the results of one of the first studies to specifically determine whether beginning meditators exhibit measurable structural changes to the brain tissue itself.
The answer was a significant “yes.”
The experimental group in the study averaged just 27 minutes per day of mindfulness practice over eight weeks, and showed clinically significant increased grey matter density, compared to controls, in multiple areas of interest. They took the widely offered Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program created John Kabat-Zinn, and the controls did not.
This is a big deal. Why, you ask?
Evidence that meditation practice produces measurable outcomes, and that it does something important to the brain, has been piling up for years now. This Harvard study is actually specifically responding to three particular piles of evidence which have been mounting and converging:
Starting with Zinn’s program, mindfulness-based interventions have spread virus-like through the health, wellness, corporate, and other worlds as they continued to yield results. It would be easy to call it another trend if the evidence weren’t so compelling, and if the list of positive outcomes weren’t so long and varied: decreased markers of stress, anxiety, and depression, increased immune response, decreased pain and suffering in terminal disease patients, improved sleep quality, increased compassion response, improved working memory, coordination, and decision making—the list goes on. By themselves these studies all warrant further investigation for causation, internal mechanisms, replication, etc. But together they have convinced practitioners in many fields to adopt mindfulness-based interventions and training for one simple reason: they keep producing results.
Neuroplasticity, the new buzzword in biological science (now that we’ve mapped that whole genome thing—yawn), is on everyone’s radar. Turns out, our brains are enormously plastic living growing and changing organs, and respond beautifully and sometimes dramatically if we can figure out how to spark the process behaviorally. Fascinating outcomes have come pouring out of therapeutic experiments for the last thirty years, demonstrating that all sorts of disabilities and neurological and pyschological problems have brain-based therapeutic solutions. Those experiments grew right along with the technology that allowed us to read, with increasing accuracy, what the brain is doing and therefore to begin isolating what brain activities occur with dysfunction and change with therapy. The conclusion has been profound in our understanding of two facts: First, the extent to which our personalities, abilities, and even emotions are brain-based, and second, that the brain, and therefore the self, is quite malleable (and heal-able) through exercise.
The obvious question, based on those first two mounting piles, has become “What is meditation doing to the brain?” Further demanding an answer was the fact that long term meditators, when examined by the fancy new machines, were found to have brains that looked quite different from you and me: structurally thicker in certain areas, less dense in others. Their patterns of neurological activity also looked different when performing certain tasks compared to controls. But were they just born different? More studies were done showing that active meditation produced different patterns of activity in the brain in novices, in ways that correlated well with common outcomes such as reduced stress response and improved attention.
Still, a few key dots remain unconnected: How and when do meditation-induced changes (behavioral and/or brain based) become “lasting” i.e. when and how does the brain actually make structural changes in response to the activity? What is the is the duration and type of exercise that will actually incite this brain remodeling, and what begins to get remodeled? And ultimately: What does a beginner need to do see lasting results, and what results?
In other words, great if some meditation based exercises help us feel good for a few minutes, and perhaps even help ease some problematic symptoms. And great if serious meditation makes you a different kind of person. But we have families and jobs and an economy that needs us to produce. If we have to move to monastaries to see meaningful, lasting changes to how our brains are work, this mindfulness stuff is only so helpuful. Better not toss that Lunesta script just yet.
That’s why this Harvard study, which showed structural changes to the brain in people who averaged 27 minutes per day over eight weeks, is a BIG DEAL. Anybody can do this. Thousands of people sign up and take classes every day across the Western World, then go home, try it, and give up, probably because it’s difficult at first and they think “I’ll never be a monk, and it will take too long to see results.” What we’re zeroing in on now is the critical amount of massed practice that starts to change the brain—and it isn’t a very big number. At all. This is a HUGE deal.
In less than 30 hours of massed practice, this study found changes in grey matter concentration in brain areas involved in learning and memory, emotion regulation, and other areas potentially involved in functions of self awareness and perception, compassion, and perspective taking.
Furthermore, the 27 minutes of daily practice referenced by the study was not exclusively formal, seated meditation. It also included, “gentle yoga” and lying body scans. The distribution of those three activities was found to have no significant relationship to the degree of brain changes, suggesting that ANY dedicated mindful practice has a meaningful effect, at least in these novice stages.
The DIY revolution is almost complete. You can start business and get funding in your pajamas. You can record an album or make a TV show from your computer. And now brain surgery can be done at home in just 27 minutes per day.