Brain Reader Part 1 (04.28.06) - They still can't read your thoughts just by looking at you, but researchers can now see what your brain is doing just by shining beams of light into your head.
Brain Reader Part 2 (04.28.06) - Scientists have found that as we age, our brains start to pay too much attention to things that might not be important. This hyper-attention can actually make us more distractible.
Brain Connections (06.08.04) - Scientists have discovered that not only does your brain go through growth spurts; it also goes though periods of pruning.
No one can deny that taking a few minutes out of a busy day to relax is a good thing. But spending that time meditating could mean pumping up your brain, as well as relaxing your body. This ScienCentral News video has more.
Just Say Om
Some people meditate to clear their minds or to relieve the stresses of daily life. Others hope to find enlightenment and reach nirvana. It's estimated that ten million Americans practice some form of meditation regularly.
"Meditating is about training the mind in effect, it's a technique, it's a tool, so its training the mind to be more focused and to be more mindful moment to moment," explains George Pitagorsky, a management consultant who practices and teaches meditation at the New York Insight Meditation Centre. "It increases concentration capability — less spacing out, much more ability to focus on a particular chosen point of reference," he says.
"Meditation can have a serious impact on your brain long beyond the time when you're actually sitting and meditating, and this may have a positive impact on your day-to-day living," says Lazar, an assistant in psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School.
Lazar found that certain parts of the brain were thicker for meditators.
As she reported in the journal NeuroReport, Lazar and her research team used a MRI brain scanner to compare the brains of people who practiced Insight meditation every day, with non-meditators. "These are not monks; these are just people who choose to meditate for about 45 minutes a day every day," she says.
Insight Meditation, or Vipassana, is the practice of mindfulness and awareness of yourself and the world around you. The belief is that the practice of mindfulness is highly effective in helping bring calm and clarity to the pressures of daily life, as well as being a spiritual path. "Insight meditation is very user-friendly," says Joseph Schmidt, co-founder and executive director of the New York Insight Centre. "People in west can adopt this if you're a person involved in the church or a non-secular person or don't believe in religion."
Lazar and her research team found that certain areas of the cortex — the outer layer of the brain that contains our thinking, reasoning and decision-making functions — were significantly thicker in the meditators.
"One of them is right up in the front of your brain right above your right eye, and this is an area that's involved in decision making and in working memory, working short term memory," she explains.
She also saw thickening in another region of the brain, called the insula, that she considers "a central switchboard of the brain," connecting the primitive limbic cortex and the more advanced cortex, which is highly developed in primates and humans. Lazar says this region is thought to be "involved in coordinating the brain and the body and the emotions and thoughts," she explains. "It helps us better make decisions."
The researchers think this thickening might help to counteract the natural thinning of the cortex that occurs as we get older. The brain's cortex starts getting thinner from about age 20 and continues to thin throughout life.
"It's not a cure-all, but it perhaps can help prevent the loss of some functions," Lazar says. "One small part of the front of the brain does not get thinner with age… and this suggests that this part of the brain is not affected by age. And this part of the cortex is involved in short term working memory and cognitive decision-making."
Their results also suggested that continuing to meditate would continue the thickening process. "The thickness is strongly correlated with the amount of experience. So the more they sat, the thicker it was," Lazar says.
She says she'd expect a similar effect from other forms of meditation. She plans to further study how meditation might affect mental ability by testing people "at multiple time points and to test their cognitive ability to see if cognitive ability correlates with thickness and if that changes as the brain gets thicker," Lazar explains.
The Dalai Lamaadvocates that neuroscientists investigate the effect of spiritual traditions, such as meditation, on the brain.
People who practice meditation regularly will certainly tell you of the benefits. "I've noticed the benefit, certainly, in my own life in terms of awareness," says New York City writer, Andrea Louie. "The most profound experience I had was just after 9/11. Immediately after the attack here in New York, many, many people were very angry. I found myself really feeling equanimity with myself, I was fully aware that adding to the anger wasn't going to help."