What if I told you that you could improve your memory, lower your stress levels and improve your relationships in just two months, for free, without even leaving your house, or breaking a sweat? You'd be pretty into that right?
Well, that's what I am telling you, or, at least, those are the claims that some scientists are making about the power of meditation. People who meditate regularly always seem to swear that it improves their mental health and sense of well-being, but there hasn't been much evidence to back up their claims until now.
Researchers with Massachusetts General Hospital took a group of meditation newbies and took MRI scans of their brains before enrolling them in an 8-week program called the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts. They attended weekly meetings and were given guided meditation audio recordings to listen to at home. Eight weeks later, researchers took second MRIs of the study subjects' brains.
The differences between the before and after MRIs were pretty striking: Parts of the brain responsible for learning and memory, self-awareness, compassion and introspection contained denser grey matter after eight weeks of meditation. And study subjects who reported that meditation reduced their stress levels actually had decreased grey matter in the parts of their brains that respond to anxiety and stress. A control group of non-meditators didn't undergo any changes in their brains over the same period.
Wow . . . this is a pretty strong argument for meditation, and suggests that it could provide tangible benefits for people with memory problems, interpersonal problems or difficulty handling stress. Also, it's so fascinating that our brains can actually change their structure over such a short period of time in response to our behaviors.
Do you meditate already? Will this news make you more likely to start? I meditated regularly for a year or so when I was in college, and I really did feel like I was calmer and more focused when I did it. My first reaction to this study is to think that I don't have 27 minutes each day to devote to meditating (that's the average that the study participants reported), and that my extra time might be better spent exercising or sleeping (two other healthy activities I don't do enough of). But, this research is so compelling that I'm going to start scouring my schedule to see if there's anyplace where I could slip in some meditation.
If you want to give it a try, check out these free mindfulness meditation audio recordings available on the website of the UCLA health system.