Saturday, October 1, 2011

Meditation improves brain function

Claims have been made for years that meditation leads to many positive benefits, from increased creativity to stress reduction. The Bible mentions meditation as early as the time of Isaac, around 3,800 years ago (Genesis 24:63), and many more times in the book of Psalms. But, is there any hard evidence showing physiological results? As recently as this year, at least three studies have demonstrated measurable changes in the brains of people who meditated.

A study by UCLA researchers found that “long-term meditators have white-matter fibers that are either more numerous, more dense or more insulated throughout the brain," according to Eileen Luders, a visiting assistant professor at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging. Though human brains slowly atrophy with age, it may be possible to considerably reduce this natural process through meditation. Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), a form of MRI which measures the flow of water and tracks white matter (primarily myelinated axons) pathways, was used to examine structural connectivity in the brain. Researchers found, in the brains of meditators, enhancement of large-scale networks including the frontal, temporal, parietal, and occipital lobes, as well as the anterior corpus callosum and limbic structures. The mechanism causing this effect in meditator’s brains is not clear and the authors cautioned there may have been prior differences in brain anatomy between those who meditate and those who do not. [1] However, the results are significant and intriguing.

Other studies have shown that regular meditation by people suffering from chronic pain can reduce the symptoms, but the mechanism was not previously clear. In a study published April 21, 2011, researchers at MIT and Harvard split subjects into two groups – those who meditated daily and those who did not. One group was trained to focus on a certain part of the body, labeled mindfulness meditation (MM). When they did so, an increased amplitude was noticed in the brain’s alpha waves compared with pre-test data and the control group. (Other types of brain waves which can be recorded via EEG include beta, theta and delta.) Alpha waves are thought to be associated with a state of relaxation as opposed to beta waves, which are more evident during an active state. Alpha waves appeared to suppress distracting and irrelevant sensory information, thereby enabling MM subjects to more effectively regulate the flow of information. And, those subjects who meditated reported less stress. The paper’s author, MIT neuroscientist Christopher Moore, stated “These activity patterns are thought to minimize distractions, to diminish the likelihood stimuli will grab your attention. Our data indicate that meditation training makes you better at focusing.” [2]

A team led by Massachusetts General Hospital researchers reported in the January 30, 2011 issue of Psychiatry Research: NeuroImaging that meditation produces measurable structural changes in the brain. Brain regions associated with stress and memory were found to be altered in subjects who participated in an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program. MR images were taken of subjects in the MBSR group as well as a control group of non-meditators before the test period and again afterward. After eight weeks, MR images revealed increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known for learning and memory, as well as structures associated with compassion, introspection and self-awareness. One brain structure showed a decrease in grey-matter density in subjects who reported decreased stress, the amygdala, a part of the limbic system which has been linked with emotions such as fear response and aggression. “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” stated Britta Holzel, PhD, first author of the paper. [3]

These studies indicate the Designer’s instructions for life prove to be valuable, with brain scans showing physiological benefits. The Psalms mention meditation on God’s works, wonders, statutes and precepts (Psalm 119:15,23,27,48,78,148, and 143:5). God commanded Joshua to meditate on the book of the law day and night (Joshua 1:8) and David wrote that a man is blessed if he delights in the law of the Lord and meditates on it day and night (Psalm 1:1-2). But, who has time to meditate with the busy lives we lead? Perhaps 45 minutes a day (as some in the study performed) is too much to ask, but maybe a little every day is better than nothing. Even more important than the physical benefits, meditation leads to positive spiritual results that affect all aspects of our lives.

[1] University of California – Los Angeles (2011, July 14). Is meditation the push-up for the brain? Study shows practice may have potential to change brain’s physical structure. ScienceDaily, Retrieved Sept. 25, 2011, from
[2] Anne Trafton, “The benefits of meditation”, MIT News, 5 May 2011,
[3] Massachusetts General Hospital (2011, January 21). Mindfulness meditation training changes brain structure in eight weeks. ScienceDaily. Retrieved 25 Sept 2011 from