Neuroscientist Sarah Lazar of Harvard Medical School became interested in meditation by accident. She injured her legs while training for the Boston Marathon and was told by a physiotherapist to stretch. So Lazar took up yoga.
“The yoga teacher promised a lot of things, saying that yoga would make us more compassionate, open the heart and all that,” says Lazar. And I thought to myself: “Well, yes, yes. Personally, I came here to stretch.” But then I began to notice that I was becoming calmer. It made it easier for me to deal with difficult situations. I became more compassionate, opened my heart and learned to see things from someone else’s point of view.”
She eventually decided to read non-fiction about mindfulness meditation (yoga would fall into that category). It turned out that every year there is more and more evidence: meditation reduces stress, helps with depression and anxiety, relieves pain and insomnia, and improves the quality of life.
Then she herself took up neuroscience research.
In the first, Lazar compared long-term meditators (7–9 years of experience) with a control group. She found that long-term meditators had more gray matter in several areas of the brain, including the auditory cortex, sensory cortex, insula, and sensory areas.
This is logical, because during mindfulness meditation, a person slows down and feels the current moment, paying attention to such physical sensations as their own breathing and extraneous sounds.
However, neuroscientists have also found that meditators also have more gray matter in another area of the brain associated with decision making and working memory: the frontal cortex. What’s more, while most people’s cortex shrinks with age, the 50-year-old meditators in the study had as much gray matter as people half their age.
This is a remarkable result.
Lazar and her team wanted to make sure experienced meditators didn’t have more gray matter to begin with, so they did a second study. In it, they recruited participants with no previous meditation experience and asked them to complete an 8-week mindfulness course.
Scientists have recorded thickenings in several parts of the brain, including in the left hippocampus (responsible for learning, memory and emotion control); temporoparietal node (involved in empathy and the ability to accept different points of view); and a part of the brain stem called the pons (where regulatory neurotransmitters are produced).
In addition, in the brains of new meditators, there was a decrease in the amygdala – the area responsible for fear, anxiety and aggression. Shrinking the size of the amygdala was accompanied by a reduction in stress in the participants.
How much do you need to meditate to achieve such results? Participants in the study were asked to meditate for 40 minutes a day, but the average was enough for 27 minutes. Several other studies show that noticeable changes for the better begin after 15-20 minutes a day.
As for Lazar’s own meditation regimen, she calls it “changeable”:
“Sometimes 40 minutes, sometimes 5, sometimes I don’t meditate at all. It’s like physical education. Working out three times a week is great. But if you get only a little bit, but every day, then this is also useful.
It turns out that meditation can give you back a 25-year-old brain. It is a pity that the body does not work like that!