How Meditation Changes the Brain

Neuroscience research has shown that meditation and mindfulness training can cause neuroplastic changes to the gray matter of your brain.

A group of Harvard neuroscientists interested in mindfulness meditation have reported that brain structures change after only eight weeks of meditation practice.

Sara Lazar, Ph.D., the study’s senior author, said in a press release, “Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day.

Britta Hölzel, the lead author on the paper says, “It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.”

To test their idea the neuroscientists enrolled 16 people in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course. The course promised to improve participants’ mindfulness and well-being, and reduce their levels of stress. Everyone received audio recordings containing 45-minute guided mindfulness exercises (body scan, yoga, and sitting meditation) that they were instructed to practice daily at home. And to facilitate the integration of mindfulness into daily life, they were also taught to practice mindfulness informally in everyday activities such as eating, walking, washing the dishes, taking a shower, and so on. On average, the meditation group participants spent an average of 27 minutes a day practicing some form of mindfulness.

Magnetic resonance images (MRI scans) of everyone’s brains were taken before and after they completed the meditation training, and a control group of people who didn’t do any mindfulness training also had their brains scanned. After completing the mindfulness course, all participants reported significant improvement in measures of mindfulness, such as “acting with awareness” and “non-judging.”

What was startling was that the MRI scans showed that mindfulness groups increased gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus, the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum. Brain regions involved in learning and memory, emotion regulation, sense of self, and perspective taking!

Sarah Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, was one of the first scientists to take the anecdotal claims about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness and test them in brain scans. What she found surprised her — that meditating can literally change your brain. She explains:

We found differences in brain volume after eight weeks in five different regions in the brains of the two groups. In the group that learned meditation, we found thickening in four regions:

  1. The primary difference, we found in the posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self relevance.
  2. The left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation.
  3. The temporo parietal junction, or TPJ, which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion.
  4. An area of the brain stem called the Pons, where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.

The amygdala, the fight or flight part of the brain which is important for anxiety, fear and stress in general. That area got smaller in the group that went through the mindfulness-based stress reduction program.

The change in the amygdala was also correlated to a reduction in stress levels.

Sarah Lazar also noted, “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”

Q: Why did you start looking at meditation and mindfulness and the brain?

Lazar: 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 practicing yoga as a form of physical therapy. I started realizing 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, 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 post-doc.

Q: So how long does someone have to meditate before they begin to see changes in their brain?

Lazar: Our data shows changes in the brain after just eight weeks.

In a mindfulness-based stress reduction program, our subjects took a weekly class. They were given a recording and told to practice 40 minutes a day at home. And that’s it.

Q: What difference has it made in your life?

Lazar: I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, so it’s had a very profound influence on my life. It’s very grounding. It’s reduced stress. It helps me think more clearly. It’s great for interpersonal interactions. I have more empathy and compassion for people.

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The human soul fundamentally yearns to be happy. Moreover, it is apparent that attributes of health and happiness are very similar; both imply wholeness and balance.

Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, reflected on happiness over 2300 years ago. Aristotle described four levels of happiness: instant gratification, gratification through achievement, gratification through the contribution to others, and transcendent gratification. It is in this highest level of happiness that we live more consistently from a place of purpose and truth, using our signature strengths to serve others, and working in various creative ways for the good of the world.

Research shows that only 10% of our happiness is determined by circumstances. 40% is determined by our internal state of mind, and 50% is related to our genetics. So we have the opportunity to improve our happiness based on choices we make, thought patterns, and behaviours. We can also choose to be happy and healthy by being in the Qi flow via the practice of meditation and Qigong to quiet the reptilian part of the brain achieving the third and fourth levels of happiness – gratification through the contribution to others and transcendent gratification, respectively. How you feel is how you heal.

– Excerpts from Introduction to the Siddha Path, page 5, Oneness with Shiva

NOTE by Acharya Ricardo B Serrano: It is my hope that this neuroscience research will convince and motivate you to take this transformative meditation and Qigong practices not only to gain the stress reduction health benefits but also experience Qigong state or samadhi through my seven books. Namaste!

According to the Three Dantians in Classical Chinese medicine, besides the brain, where the Upper Dantian is located, there is a second brain in the gut located in the Lower Dantian. The term “gut feeling” comes from the notion that the Lower Dantian is the home for kinesthetic feelings, communication, and awareness. Western science follows a similar concept crediting the enteric nervous system as the brain in the gut. Researchers have found that much like the brain in the head, the enteric nervous system sends and receives impulses, records experiences, and responds to emotions.

The Lower Dantian is closest to the Earth (yin) and is associated with the Jing (essence) and the physical energy of the body. Because the lower dantian is closest to the Earth it naturally gathers and stores the Earth’s yin energy which counter balances the great yang energy cultivated during Qigong practice.

The Middle Dantian is the center of emotional energies in the human body and is located in the chest area. This Dantian is capable of emotional communication through the empathy of the heart, which means that one can read the emotions of another.

“Oneness or Qigong state (Samadhi) is experienced by cultivating the Three Treasures Jing, Qi and Shen in the Three Dantians through the practice of Qigong.” – Master Ricardo B Serrano

“The teaching focuses essentially on the purification of Jing-Chi-Shen into its final product: the elixir of pure-person.” – Door to All Wonders, Tao Te Ching

“Health is the greatest possession. Contentment is the greatest treasure. Confidence is the greatest friend. Non-being (samadhi) is the greatest joy.”
– Lao Tzu

– Excerpts from Hanuman Qigong, page 53, Oneness with Shiva

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“This is how I quiet my monkey mind – I become aware of my breath and my monkey mind quiets down. Where awareness goes, energy flows. Where energy flows, awareness follows.”
– Acharya Ricardo B Serrano

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First published April 1, 2016 ©

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