Does Meditation change the brain structure?

Pupils meditating in lotus position on desk in classroom at the

Recent research by Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazal indicates that a regular practice of meditation leads to changes in the brain. Also, that it can prevent some of the shrinkage of grey matter associated with aging.

In a TEDx talk, Lazar relates how she was led to the discovery by observing her own behaviour after taking up regular yoga and meditation. Her first study involved making MRI scans of the brains of mediators versus non-mediators. The results showed that people who meditated 30-40 minutes a day had increased grey matter in the frontal cortex, and in the sensory and in the part of the brain dedicated to processing auditory and sensory information. Critics however pointed out that perhaps meditation practitioners happened to be slightly strange, with different brains from most people.

In her second study Lazar chose a random group of non-meditators. After their brains were all scanned, half of them took a meditation course and started to meditate while the others did not. After eight weeks, the brain structure of the meditators showed the same significant changes as in the previous study. Interestingly, in meditation practitioners, the amygdale — the part of the brain associated with fear and anxiety had shrunk.

A subsequent study by Kieran Fox of the University of British Columbia and others consisted of a meta-analysis of MRI scans of meditation practitioners, suggests that differences do exist in the brains of meditation practitioners as demonstrated by Lazal’s research.  A third study by Do-Hyung Kang,  Hang Joon Jo and others of Seoul University also replicated the results.

The above studies demonstrate not only that meditation can affect brain structure. They support an emerging view of the neuroplasticity of the brain.  The traditional view is that the brain is an organ that remains static throughout one’s adult life, with the exception of shrinking at a predictable rate into old age. The neuroplastic brain is one that, can change even on a short term such as a year. Most extraordinarily, our thoughts and emotions can change its structure. Activities such as meditation, learning, depression can lead to observable changes in the brain’s structure, not only in growing grey matter, but in rewiring the way that the brain works. As Mario Beauregard pointed out,  neuroplasticity also throws into question a basic assumption of neuroscience, that the brain and mind are identical.