By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“You have the capacity to heal the emotional dysfunctionality of your own brain. When you increase your awareness with mindfulness, you can transform your brain, create new circuits or change the way neurons talk to each other.” – Bhavika
There has accumulated a large amount of research demonstrating that meditation has significant benefits for psychological, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. Its positive effects are so widespread that it is difficult to find any other treatment of any kind with such broad beneficial effects on everything from mood and happiness to severe mental and physical illnesses. This raises the question of how meditation could do this.
The nervous system is a dynamic entity, constantly changing and adapting to the environment. It will change size, activity, and connectivity in response to experience. For example, the brain area that controls the right index finger has been found to be larger in blind subjects who use braille than in sighted individuals. Similarly, cab drivers in London who navigate the twisting streets of the city, have a larger hippocampus, which is involved in spatial navigation, than predefined route bus drivers. These changes in the brain are called neuroplasticity. Over the last decade neuroscience has been studying the effects of contemplative practices on the brain and has identified neuroplastic changes in widespread areas. In other words, meditation practice appears to mold and change the brain, producing psychological, physical, and spiritual benefits.
The seemingly simple behavior of meditation is actually quite complex. Adding to the complexity is that there are a variety of different meditation techniques. To begin to understand exactly how meditation works to produce its benefit, it is important to determine what works best and what doesn’t. So, there is a need to test and compare the effects of a variety of techniques and variations. There has been some work investigating the neuroplastic changes resulting from a number of different types of meditation techniques. But more work is needed.
In today’s Research News article “Increased Grey Matter Associated with Long-Term Sahaja Yoga Meditation: A Voxel-Based Morphometry Study”
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Hernández and colleagues investigate the neuroplastic effects of “Sahaja Yoga Meditation (SYM). They state that SYM “shares some goals with some other meditation techniques such as Mindfulness meditation, Loving-kindness meditation or other Buddhist meditations i.e., to be fully conscious on the present moment, to reduce the wandering mind and to increase compassion and love.” However, in SYM the practitioner regularly experiences the state of mental silence or “thoughtless awareness.” This allows for an examination of the neural changes accompanying the unique state of thoughtless awareness. To investigate the neuroplastic changes produced by SYM, they compared MRI scans of the brains of expert meditators with 5 to 26 years of experience to non-meditator controls.
They found that the meditators had significantly more grey matter (cortex) in their brains than controls. Areas that were particularly enlarged were the ventral lateral prefrontal cortex, the right anterior insula, the right inferior temporal gyrus, and the right inferior parietal lobe. These size increases suggest functional improvements. The insula is known to be involved in sensing internal states and emotions. The inferior temporal gyrus has been shown to be involved in alertness. The ventral lateral prefrontal cortex has been shown to be involved in emotional intelligence and attention. Hence, the expanded brain areas reflect expanded attention and alertness and regulation of emotions produced by Sahaja Yoga Meditation.
This makes sense as the mindfulness meditation component of SYM would be expected to develop alertness and attention while the Loving-kindness meditation component of SYM would be expected to develop emotional sensitivity and regulation. The results clearly demonstrate that extensive practice of Sahaja Yoga Meditation, like other meditation practices expands the brains processing power particularly in regard to attention, alertness, and emotions. With these improvements in these important functions that are involved in virtually everything that a person does, it is no wonder that meditation has such widespread beneficial effects.
So, expand the brain with meditation.
“We can intentionally shape the direction of plasticity changes in our brain. By focusing on wholesome thoughts, for example, and directing our intentions in those ways, we can potentially influence the plasticity of our brains and shape them in ways that can be beneficial. That leads us to the inevitable conclusion that qualities like warm-heartedness and well-being should best be regarded as skills.” – Richie Davidson
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
Hernández SE, Suero J, Barros A, González-Mora JL, Rubia K (2016) Increased Grey Matter Associated with Long-Term Sahaja Yoga Meditation: A Voxel-Based Morphometry Study. PLoS ONE 11(3): e0150757. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0150757
Objectives: To investigate regional differences in grey matter volume associated with the practice of Sahaja Yoga Meditation.
Design: Twenty three experienced practitioners of Sahaja Yoga Meditation and twenty three non-meditators matched on age, gender and education level, were scanned using structural Magnetic Resonance Imaging and their grey matter volume were compared using Voxel-Based Morphometry.
Results: Grey matter volume was larger in meditators relative to non-meditators across the whole brain. In addition, grey matter volume was larger in several predominantly right hemispheric regions: in insula, ventromedial orbitofrontal cortex, inferior temporal and parietal cortices as well as in left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and left insula. No areas with larger grey matter volume were found in non-meditators relative to meditators.
Conclusions: The study shows that long-term practice of Sahaja Yoga Meditation is associated with larger grey matter volume overall, and with regional enlargement in several right hemispheric cortical and subcortical brain regions that are associated with sustained attention, self-control, compassion and interoceptive perception. The increased grey matter volume in these attention and self-control mediating regions suggests use-dependent enlargement with regular practice of this meditation.