gyms, personal trainers — people have many strategies for
building bigger muscles and stronger bones. But what can one
do to build a bigger brain?
That's the finding from a group of researchers at UCLA who
used high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to
scan the brains of people who meditate. In a study published
in the journal NeuroImage and currently available online (by
subscription), the researchers report that certain regions
in the brains of long-term meditators were larger than in a
similar control group.
Specifically, meditators showed significantly larger volumes
of the hippocampus and areas within the orbito-frontal
cortex, the thalamus and the inferior temporal gyrus — all
regions known for regulating emotions.
"We know that people who consistently meditate have a
singular ability to cultivate positive emotions, retain
emotional stability and engage in mindful behavior," said
Eileen Luders, lead author and a postdoctoral research
fellow at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging. "The
observed differences in brain anatomy might give us a clue
why meditators have these exceptional abilities."
Research has confirmed the beneficial aspects of meditation.
In addition to having better focus and control over their
emotions, many people who
regularly have reduced levels of stress and bolstered immune
systems. But less is known about the link between meditation
and brain structure.
In the study, Luders and her colleagues examined 44 people —
22 control subjects and 22 who had practiced various forms
of meditation, including Zazen, Samatha and Vipassana, among
others. The amount of time they had practiced ranged from
five to 46 years, with an average of 24 years.
More than half of all the meditators said that deep
concentration was an essential part of their practice, and
most meditated between 10 and 90 minutes every day.
The researchers used a high-resolution, three-dimensional
form of MRI and two different approaches to measure
differences in brain structure. One approach automatically
divides the brain into several regions of interest, allowing
researchers to compare the size of certain brain structures.
The other segments the brain into different tissue types,
allowing researchers to compare the amount of gray matter
within specific regions of the brain.
The researchers found significantly larger cerebral
measurements in meditators compared with controls, including
larger volumes of the right hippocampus and increased gray
matter in the right orbito-frontal cortex, the right
thalamus and the left inferior temporal lobe. There were no
regions where controls had significantly larger volumes or
more gray matter than meditators.
Because these areas of the brain are closely linked to
emotion, Luders said, "these might be the neuronal
underpinnings that give meditators' the outstanding ability
to regulate their emotions and allow for well-adjusted
responses to whatever life throws their way."
What's not known, she said, and will require further study,
are what the specific correlates are on a microscopic level
— that is, whether it's an increased number of neurons, the
larger size of the neurons or a particular "wiring" pattern
meditators may develop that other people don't.
Because this was not a longitudinal study — which would have
tracked meditators from the time they began meditating
onward — it's possible that the meditators already had more
regional gray matter and volume in specific areas; that may
have attracted them to meditation in the first place, Luders
However, she also noted that numerous previous studies have
pointed to the brain's remarkable plasticity and how
environmental enrichment has been shown to change brain