Call it Zen or Transcendental meditation (TM) or Mindfulness meditation (MM), or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)...they all relate to different forms of contemplation as a means to calm the body and mind. Meditation is an ancient practice with origins in India and China that has, in the past few decades, experienced an explosion of popularity. Claims regarding its benefits include improvements in concentration, perceptual sensitivity, memory, reaction times, and relaxation. Since we have been studying the process of memory, I was curious to find out more about the links between meditation and memory.
There is a positive correlation between the practice of meditation and memory. In recent years, mindfulness-meditation (MM) and Mindfulness-Based-Stress-Reduction (MBSR) have been studied by neuroscientists and the results show that MM results in an increase in the cerebral cortex thickness which is in turn achieved by an increase in the blood flow to the region. Remember the London taxi drivers' phenomenal memory and the increased activity in their hippocampuses? Meditation increases the volume of the hippocampus, according to studies done at UCLA.
There is one study that caught my eye that compares Magnetic Resonance (MR) images of participants before and after they underwent an 8-week program of MBSR. Results included increased gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus, the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction and the cerebellum. These areas are associated with learning, memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking. There were NO downsides mentioned in ANY study. In fact, since major depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder subjects have associated with them lower volumes of the hippocampuses, researchers are seriously considering the use of meditation in such situations.
The scientists acknowledge that there may be an element of selection bias since the participants were people who had voluntarily (or at the instruction of a medical practitioner) signed up for the MBSR program and the control group consisted of people on the said waiting list. Confounds of the study are that MBSR includes group social interaction, stress-reduction education as well as gentle stretching any of which might be the real reason for the highly favorable results.
Don't let that confound you however. Go ahead....take your moment(s) of Zen.
Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density
Britta K. Hölzel, James Carmody, Mark Vangel, Christina Congleton, Sita M. Yerramsetti, Tim Gard, Sara W. Lazar
Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging - 30 January 2011 (Vol. 191, Issue 1, Pages 36-43, DOI: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006)
Mindfulness training affects attention--or is it attentional effort?
Jensen, Christian Gaden; Vangkilde, Signe; Frokjaer, Vibe; Hasselbalch, Steen G.
Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Sep 12, 2011, No Pagination
Attending to the present: mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference
Norman A. S. Farb, Zindel V. Segal, Helen Mayberg, Jim Bean, Deborah McKeon, Zainab Fatima, and Adam K. Anderson
Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2007 December; 2(4): 313-322.
Prepublished online 2007 August 13.