[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t was not long ago when most people, including scientists, thought that the human brain could not be developed beyond a certain point. The terms “hardwired”, “fixed”, and “unchangeable” were associated with the nerve development of the human brain once a certain age (usually early childhood to adolescence) was reached.
Neuroplasticity is now defined as: “The brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming neural connections throughout life.”
No longer is the human brain thought to be a static, unchanging organ that is limited by our age. In fact, neuroscientists have produced accumulating evidence that demonstrates the brains ability to restructure and form neural connections to compensate for damage caused by injury, disease, and age. So not only can your brain repair and strengthen itself despite of age, it can do so even if it’s been damaged!
Further studies are continuing to demonstrate that mindfulness – the moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and environment – can greatly assist with the development of our brain; in essence, aiding the neuroplasticity process. This is nothing short of amazing! The understanding that you can change your thought processes, feelings and emotions via neuroplasticity through the practice of mindfulness is incredible.
Here are three scientific studies that have shown how mindfulness can rewire your brain…
Study #1: Mindfulness meditation reduces depressive episodes
Millions of people every year are diagnosed with depression and prescribed medication. In the United States alone, depression will affect about 10% of the population in any given one-year period – about 19 million people. In the UK, the number of people taking antidepressant medication has doubled between 1998 and 2010.
Professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, Zindel Segal, utilized a grant given by the MacArthur Foundation to conduct a study on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (or MBSR). With the assistance of two of his colleagues from the University of Oxford, Dr. Segal found the study to be a resounding success. This study was so promising that Dr. Segal initiated another study to demonstrate the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation on depressed patients, which led to the creation of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).
In the study, all of the patients had been diagnosed with depression, with 80% experiencing three or more depressive episodes (“pervasive and persistent low mood accompanied by low self-esteem and loss of pleasure.”) 34-36% of MBCT participants who experienced three of more depressive episodes had not relapsed over a one year timeframe compared to those who adhered to prescribed care (antidepressants or other).
The results were encouraging, which led to subsequent research at both Cambridge and Oxford University in the UK, with both studies producing similar results. This research has proved immensely valuable in promoting mindfulness meditation as a viable, healthy alternative to drug-based therapies in the UK; leading to more physicians “prescribing” mindfulness meditation to their patients.
MBCT studies and mindfulness meditation continues to find a foothold within the scientific and medical communities within the US and other parts of the world. With results such as these it is easy to see why.
Study #2: Mindfulness meditation improves learning, memory, and other cognitive functions
“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day.”
Harvard University Medical School professor Sara Lazar and other Harvard-affiliated researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital set out to demonstrate her claim through the development of an eight-week mindfulness meditation program.
The eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program consisted of weekly mindfulness meditation meetings and audio recordings for the 16 participants to practice alone. They were then instructed to keep track on how much time they practiced individually each day, which averaged out to approximately 27 minutes for all participants. The focal point of the mindfulness meditation for the study was on “nonjudgmental awareness of sensations, feelings, and state of mind.”
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was used to take brain structure images of the 16 participants, with a separate set of images taken for the control group – non-meditating individuals who did not participate in the program.
The results were astounding.
Not only did the participants state that they experienced exceptional cognitive benefits, which were demonstrable through mindfulness questionnaires, there were measurable physical differences in gray-matter density within the brain, measured by the MR images.
The images revealed the following:
– Increased gray-matter density within the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory.
– Changes within the brain structure areas responsible for compassion, introspection, and self-awareness.
– Decreased gray-matter density within the amygdala, the brain structure responsible for anxiety and stress.
A distinguished professor at Giessen University in Germany perhaps best sums up this groundbreaking study:
“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.”
Study #3: Mindfulness meditation alleviates stress
Professor J. David Creswell and his team at Carnegie Mellon University have demonstrated that long-term mindfulness practice is not necessary to relieve the symptoms of stress. In fact, just 25 minutes of mindfulness meditation for just three days can accomplish just that.
Creswell and his research team conducted a study consisting of 66 individuals ranging in age from 18-30 years. One group of participants was assigned to the short meditation program, consisting of 25 minutes of mindfulness practice for three consecutive days. The meditation group was given exercises, designed to focus on the breath while turning attention inward to their present moment experiences. The other group utilized the same time period to analyze poetry readings to enhance problem-solving capabilities.
For evaluation purposes, all participants were given challenging speech and math tasks to complete in front of stern-looking evaluators. Each participant reported their stress levels in response to these tasks and gave saliva samples to be measured for cortisol, a common stress hormone.
– The meditation group reported less stress induction from the tasks given; demonstrating that mindfulness practice (even in short duration) can increase the resilience to stress.
– Interestingly, the meditation group showed greater levels of cortisol, which was the opposite of what Creswell and his team were expecting.
Creswell explains: “When you initially learn mindfulness meditation practices, you have to cognitively work at it — especially during a stressful task…these cognitive efforts may result in the task feeling less stressful, but they may also have physiological costs with greater cortisol production.”
The research team now focuses on automating the mindfulness practices, making it less cognitively taxing while decreasing the levels of cortisol. Even in its early stages, short-term mindfulness meditation is showing great promise in alleviating psychological stressors.