Meditating for a Better Brain

Meditation offers a host of proven pyschological benefits. People who meditate regularly report lower levels of stress, improvements in concentration and memory, and slower reactivity (no more road rage!). The mental relaxation produced by meditation can have physiological benefits, too, in the same way we know that a calmer emotional state is good for our physical body. But a few new studies reveal that the practice may have profound effects on actual brain development—something traditionally believed to peak in our 20s and then begin to decline.

Researchers at the Laboratory of Neuroimaging at UCLA have spent years studying how meditation may affect neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to make physiological changes. In a recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, the lab reported finding that long-term meditators had brain function that not only did not decline as they aged, but improved, thanks to an increase in brain gyrification—activity that happens in the cerebral cortex, or the outermost part of the brain. The lab also determined that the brains of dedicated meditators have more gray matter, which affects the brain’s ability to process information, and white matter, which helps a person communicate clearly.

The notion that meditation may help our brains grow long into our old age isn’t particularly surprising to many who’ve experienced its benefits through their own practice. “Meditation has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce a person’s number of hospital visits, and reduce stress hormones,” says Angela Wilson, a Kripalu presenter who is well versed in the science of yoga. Angela cites studies similar to the one at UCLA—one out of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and another from the University of Wisconsin—that suggest meditation increases cortisol thickness and may activate the part of the brain related to positive emotions. “The brain is much more trainable than we had imagined,” she says. Meditation has also been shown to boost the immune system, helping to ward off illness.

The good news is that it doesn’t take much to reap the benefits of meditation. According to Angela, the latest research suggests that a bit of practice every day—as little as five minutes—is preferable to longer practices fewer times a week. And there’s really no wrong way to do it. “There is a commonly held belief that being ‘good’ at meditation means clearing your head and not thinking anything,” says Angela. “But meditation is about noticing what's present—not trying to achieve a certain state of mind. If you’re taking some quiet time to notice your breath, to notice sensation in your body, to notice when your mind has drifted away—even if it’s the 100th time—you’re meditating well. For me, sometimes it’s as simple as bringing my attention consciously to my breath before I go to sleep, or practicing mindfulness while I go on a walk.”

And in addition to the improvements in cognitive functioning, meditation can simply be a practice that’s supportive to the aging process itself. “For many, growing older can be daunting,” says Angela. “Facing sickness, older age, and our mortality is challenging. Meditation can give people a tool to be with their experience in a loving, non-judgmental way, to begin to accept aging and all its challenges as a natural and even rewarding part of life.”