Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, was one of the first scientists to take anecdotal claims about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness and test them using brain scans.
What she found surprised her – that meditating can literally change your brain.
Q: Why did you start looking at meditation and mindfulness and the brain?
A friend and I were training for the Boston Marathon. I had some running injuries, so I saw a physical therapist who told me to stop running and just stretch. So I started practising yoga as a form of physical therapy. I started realising that it was very powerful, that it had some real benefits, so I just got interested in how it worked.
The yoga teacher made all sorts of claims, that yoga would increase your compassion and open your heart. And I’d think, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m here to stretch.” But I started noticing that I was calmer. I was better able to handle more difficult situations. I was more compassionate and open-hearted, and able to see things from others’ points of view.
I thought maybe it was just the placebo response. But then I did a literature search of the science and saw evidence that meditation had been associated with decreased stress, decreased depression, anxiety, pain and insomnia, an enhanced ability to pay attention, and an increased quality of life.
At that point, I was doing my PhD in molecular biology. So I just switched and started doing this research as a postdoc.
Q: How did you do the research?
The first study looked at long-term meditators versus a control group. We found that long-term meditators have an increased amount of grey matter [compared with the non-meditating control group] in the insula and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex. Which makes sense. When you’re mindful, you’re paying attention to your breathing, to sounds, to the present moment experience, and shutting cognition down. It stands to reason your sense would be enhanced.
We also found they had more grey matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and executive decision-making.
It’s well documented that our cortex shrinks as we get older: It’s harder to figure things out and remember things. But in this one region of the prefrontal cortex, 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of grey matter as 25 year olds.
So the first question was: Well, maybe the people with more grey matter in the study had more grey matter before they started meditating. So we did a second study.
We took people who’d never meditated before and put one group through an eight-week programme of mindfulness-based stress reduction. Continue reading >>