In a study conducted by the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Center for Mindfulness, 16 healthy individuals were given MRIs two weeks before beginning a mindfulness-based stress reduction course. During this course, individuals took part in weekly classes, listened to guided meditation audio recordings, and logged the amount of time they meditation on their own each day, with the average being about 27 minutes. The same participants were given a second MRI two weeks after completing the course.
The brain scans showed some interesting findings. The hippocampus, important in learning and memory, showed an increase in brain cell mass. Other areas that showed an increase in brain cell mass were structures linked to self-awareness, introspection, and compassion. Some areas – such as the amygdala, which controls anxiety and stress – showed a decrease in mass, an interesting finding since most participants rated themselves as less stressed after taking part in the program.
The study shows that the psychological benefits people are reporting are very real shifts in the biological structure of the brain. While the underlying mechanisms that cause the brain to change in response to meditation need further research, it is an important step to know that individuals practicing meditation can play an active role in their well-being.
To read more about this study, you can read more in the January 2011 issue of Psychiatric Research: Neuroimaging.
Do you use meditation with your clients? What kinds of outcomes have you witnessed?