If you are a meditator, you are likely familiar with the more obvious benefits of practice, which include a reduction in stress, an increased ability to enact mindfulness, greater concentration and a lowered tendency toward immediate and excessive emotional dysregulation. Recent research suggests that, in addition to the anecdotal psycho-social benefits evidenced by a regular meditation practice, there is some empirical indication that meditation may contribute to a measurable differentiation between the brains of mediators and those of non-meditators.
A study published in NeuroImage presents findings by a group of researchers at UCLA who used high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of meditators. The researchers report having found differences between the scans, showing that certain brain areas of the long-term meditator group were larger than those of the non-meditating control group. Meditators displayed a significantly larger volume of hippocampal tissue, as well as a similarly increased volume of tissue in the orbito-frontal cortex, the thalamus and the inferior temporal gyrus. All of these areas are recognized as playing a role in emotional regulation.
Eileen Luders, principal author of the study and post-doctoral fellow at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging stated, "We know that people who consistently meditate have a singular ability to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability, and [to] engage in mindful behavior," adding, "The observed differences in brain anatomy might give us a clue [as to] why meditators have these exceptional abilities."
Previous research has posited the beneficial aspects of meditation, suggesting that people who meditate regularly enjoy better cognitive focus and control over their emotions, as well as displaying reduced levels of stress and bolstered immune systems. Until recently, much less was known about the link between the practice of meditation and actual brain structure.
In this study, Luders, et. al. looked at individuals who had been practicing various forms of meditation, including, among others, Zazen, Samatha and Vipassana (N=22), for terms ranging from five to 46 years (Mean=24). More than half of these reported deep concentration as an essential part of their practice, with most sitting anywhere from 10 to 90 minutes daily. These trial subjects were balanced against a control group of non-meditators (N=22).
Employing a high-resolution, three-dimensional form of MRI, researchers were able to measure differences in brain structure from two different perspectives; dividing the brain into several regions of interest, which allowed a size comparison between various brain structures, and segmenting the brain into different tissue types, allowing a comparison gray matter volume and density within specific regions of the brain.
The researchers found significantly more developed cortical areas in the brains of meditators, as compared to those of control subjects. These findings included a larger volume of tissue in the right hippocampus, as well as increased gray matter in the right orbito-frontal cortex, the right thalamus and the left inferior temporal lobe. Within the control group, regions displaying significantly larger tissue volume than is typical were not found.
Luders suggests, "These [more developed areas] might be the neuronal underpinnings that give meditators' the outstanding ability to regulate their emotions, and allow for well-adjusted responses to whatever life throws their way." The specific correlates of these findings on the microscopic level are not known, leading her to propose the need for further study in order to determine whether it is an increase in the multiplicity of neurons, increased neuronal size or a specific neuroplastic wiring scheme that those who meditate develop, as opposed to those who do not.
As this is not a longitudinal study, some caution must be cast in the direction of considering that those initially drawn to meditation may already possess more region-specific gray matter and tissue volume in certain areas. That 100% of the trial group displayed these characteristics suggests that it is statistically unlikely this condition was an antecedent artifact. In addition, Luders notes that numerous studies have suggested the brain's enormous plasticity in conjunction with environmental enrichment has been shown to prompt changes in brain structure.
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