Meditation and brain structure- a post by Nick, our King of Research

March 15, 2011

Meditation and brain structure- a post by Nick, our King of Research

We are really pleased to be putting up our first blog post by Nick, the newest member of the Headspace team. Nick studies part time at King's College London and works closely with neuroscientists who are at the cutting edge of meditation and scientific research so is well versed in the tried and tested benefits of meditation.  Nick will be contributing to our blog with facts and figures and his own experiences of meditation.

How much meditation do I have to do to change my brain?

Probably a lot less than you think.

Mindfulness has been proven to benefit our psychological well-being in a number of ways.As someone who’s practiced for a fair few years and has personally experienced the immensely positive impact it can have, I’m still in awe of all the benefits that scientific research is finding it provides. It has been proven to reduce anxiety, reduce the chances of depression relapse, reduce addictive behaviour and even lessen the unpleasantness of pain. But it doesn’t stop there. 

It doesn’t only help with problems, but it’s also been proven to improve our functioning. It’s been proven to improve attention span, working memory in stressful situations (i.e the ability to hold information in your mind and reason with it, like when solving a complex problem or playing Sudoku), improve self control and even strengthen the immune system. Now I realise why meditation has helped my life in so many ways!

While there’s been hundreds of psychological studies demonstrating that mindfulness is beneficial in one way or another, I find that people are most often compelled by the idea that it can actually physically change your brain. While it’s easy to dismiss people saying that meditation makes them feel less anxious, more balanced and happier, it’s very hard to dismiss structural changes found in the brains of meditators.

Just to give you taster of some of the research, last month a study was published in a neuroscience journal, which investigated the effects of 30 minutes meditation a day for 8 weeks. They compared the brains of participants before and after the period and compared them to a control group which had not been meditating. They found a number of changes in the meditators which were not found in the control group. Firstly, they found that the meditators had a reduced amount of grey matter in the amygdala, an area connected to stress and anxiety. Secondly, they found increased grey matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning, memory and emotional regulation. Lastly, they also found increased grey matter in other areas of the brain relating to empathy. All this for just 30 minutes a day.

But, if you think that sounds like quite a lot of meditation, other studies have found that changes in the brain occur after even shorter periods of meditation. In a series of studies, researchers found that a Chinese practice similar to mindfulness led to clear structural changes in the anterior cingulate, a part of the brain associated with self control, after just 11 hours. In fact they found that there was increased blood flow to this area after just 5 days of 20 minutes a day.

By the time you’ve finished Take 20, you’ll have done more than 11 hours of practice and are likely to have physically changed your brain for the better. So the next time you a sit down and meditate with Andy, bear in mind that not only will you be improving your mental well-being but you’ll also be making beneficial changes to your brain as well. Amazing isn’t it!

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September 22, 2014

I have done 43 sessions so far (through Headspace, of course, and who's counting?). I absolutely love it. I lost my mom last year and have been experiencing some anxiety in the last 6 months. Meditation is giving me a greater sense of calm - but perhaps most surprisingly - a sense of *curiosity* about my feelings, not only anxiety but all of them. I love going into my chair by the window each day and taking 20 minutes or so to slow down and go inward. Andy is awesome. Thank you guys. :-)