Meditation and the brain

Contents

4 Ways Meditation Changes the Brain

1. Meditation Changes Structures in the Brain

Some studies suggest practicing mindfulness meditation can actually change the structures of the brain. A study published in the journal Psychiatry Research that was conducted by a team of researchers at Harvard University used brain scans to determine that eight weeks of a mindfulness training program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) increased the cortical thickness in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls learning and memory and plays an important role in emotion regulation. (1)

While scientists are still working to understand the effects of volume increases or decreases of the hippocampus, it is generally believed that increases correlate to improved emotional regulation, while decreases are a risk factor for negative emotions, like stress. Additionally, several mental health disorders, including major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are associated with decreased volume and density of the hippocampus.

The study also found decreases in the volume of the amygdala, the part of the brain involved with experiencing emotions like fear, stress, and anxiety. What’s more, the observed brain changes matched the participants’ self-reporting of their levels of stress, meaning meditation not only altered structures in the brain, but how those practicing it actually felt.

A follow up study by the same researchers published in February 2014 in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience also found that changes in the brain following meditation corresponded to improvements in participants’ perceived level of stress. (2)

2. Meditation and Stress Regulation

A small study published in July 2016 in the journal Biological Psychiatry used brain scans to analyze the effects of meditation on the brain and people’s health. (3)

For the study, researchers recruited 35 unemployed adults who were seeking employment and were under a considerable amount of stress. The participants were put into two groups for a three-day intervention: one that was taught a formal program of mindfulness meditation and one that was taught a sort of “fake” meditation program focusing on distracting oneself from worries, such as with chatter or jokes.

At the end of the intervention, participants underwent brain scans and found that those who had participated in the meditation training showed more expressive activity in the areas of the brain related to resting state.

At a follow up four months later, those who participated in the meditation group also had lower levels of a marker in their blood tied to unhealthy inflammation, a physical condition closely related to stress.

3. How Meditation Can Help Improve Focus and Concentration

In today’s busy world with its many distractions, everyone has trouble keeping focus from time to time. Perhaps not surprisingly, scientists say there’s reason to believe that meditating can help with that.

A study published in March 2013 in the journal Psychological Science suggests that mindfulness meditation can decrease mind wandering and improve cognitive performance. (4) The researchers found that a two-week mindfulness meditation course helped participants’ focus and memory while completing the GRE. The training led to improved scores and reduced the occurrence of distracted thoughts.

Another study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found similar results. (5) Researchers compared the brains of experience meditators to those of people new to the practice and paid particular attention to the default mode network (DMN), or the part of the brain that is active when the person is not focused on the outside world. Essentially, it’s responsible for the wandering thoughts that appear when you’re sitting still or about to go to sleep.

The researchers found that in experienced meditators, the DMN was relatively deactivated while the participants were practicing various forms of meditation, which translates to fewer distracted thoughts than the novice meditators.

4. Meditation and Protecting the Aging Brain

Preliminary research also suggests that meditation may help protect the brain against aging. Research published in the journal NeuroImage by a team from UCLA suggested that people who meditate have less age-related atrophy in the brain’s white matter. (6)

A follow-up study published in January 2015 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that meditation also appears to help preserve the brain’s gray matter, the tissue that contains neurons and is connected by the white matter. (7)

For the study, the same researchers compared the brains of 50 people who had meditated regularly over the course of 20 years with the brains of those who didn’t. Individuals in both groups showed a loss of gray brain matter as they aged, but for those who meditated, it declined less.

The researchers cautioned that the study cannot draw a cause and effect relationship between meditation and preserving gray matter in the brain. Still, they say it is promising, and call for more research to further explore the practice’s potential protective benefits on the aging brain.

How Meditation Changes the Brain

Did you know that simply sitting and breathing mindfully can significantly change the brain? It’s true!

Meditation Nurtures the Brain

We’ve all heard that meditation leads to greater mental clarity, lower levels of stress and reduced anxiety. But how does meditation benefit the brain? Studies have shown that mindfulness practice brings about positive physiological changes that make the connection between meditation and the brain even more profound.

In recent decades, meditation has become more conventional. People are spending time working with their minds, following their breath and learning to appreciate the power of the present moment. Meditation groups are popping up everywhere – in schools, communities, senior centers and beyond. It’s become so mainstream that even the business community has joined the movement – as described in a recent article from Business Insider entitled “Silicon Valley is obsessed with meditation, and there’s new evidence it changes the brain for the better.”

Research in the field of psychology has confirmed what every meditator knows: meditation is good for body and soul. Science is now able to reinforce the claims by showing how meditation physically impacts the extraordinarily complex organ between our ears. Recent scientific evidence confirms that meditation nurtures the parts of the brain that contribute to well-being. Furthermore, it seems that a regular practice deprives the stress and anxiety-related parts of the brain of their nourishment.

Let’s have a brief look at some of the science.

Effects of meditation on the brain

In an interview in the Washington Post, Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar gives an introduction to how meditation affects the brain. She explains how four regions of meditators’ brains associated with healthy brain function become more substantial, while one of the areas associated with undesirable behavior actually shrinks. Let’s have a look at these areas.

Left Hippocampus

This is the area in the brain that helps us learn. The tools that we use for cognitive ability and memory are found here, as are emotional regulators associated with self-awareness and empathy. Research confirms that as the cortical thickness of the hippocampus grows in volume through meditation, gray-matter density increases and all of these important functions are nurtured.

Posterior Cingulate

The posterior cingulate is connected with wandering thoughts and self-relevance – that is, the degree of subjectivity and referral to oneself when processing information. It seems that the larger and stronger the posterior cingulate, the less the mind wanders and the more realistic the sense of self can be.

Two of the vitally important effects that meditation has on the mind are the ability to remain attuned to the present moment without judgment, regret or anticipation; and the ability to observe sensations and emotions that arise in the mindstream without necessarily identifying with them. Meditation seems to increase the density of the posterior cingulate.

Pons

This is a very busy and important part of the brain where many of the neurotransmitters that help regulate brain activity are produced. Located in the middle of the brain stem, its name, pons, comes from the Latin for “bridge.” The pons is involved in a great number of essential functions, including sleep, facial expressions, processing sensory input, and basic physical functioning. Meditation strengthens the pons.

The Temporo Parietal Junction (TPJ)

We like to think that we’re good people – empathetic, humane and just. Empathy and compassion are associated with the temporoparietal junction of the brain, or TPJ, as is our sense of perspective. We might say that the posterior cingulate focuses on “me” while the TPJ shines a light on everything else. The TPJ becomes more active when we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, for example. A stronger TPJ—combined with other benefits of meditation like lower stress and present moment awareness—can help us be the good people we aspire to become.

Amygdala

There is another area of the brain that is changed through meditation: the amygdala. But it doesn’t get larger; it shrinks. The amygdala—that pesky corner of the brain that produces feelings of anxiety, fear and general stress—is physically smaller in the brains of expert meditators. For the rest of us, even an eight-week crash course in mindfulness-based stress reduction leads to a measurable decrease in the size of the amygdala. The smaller it is, the less apt it is to dictate our emotional responses, especially those of the “fight-or-flight” genre. No wonder we feel so great when a daily meditation regimen is incorporated into our lives.

If you’re interested in learning more about meditation’s effects on the brain, check out our companion article What Happens to your Mind, Brain and Body During Meditation. Also, Altered Traits: What Science Reveals About How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson will provide you with insights and plenty of food for thought.

But meditation won’t change your brain for the better unless you actually sit down and practice! Keen on meditating and ready for some guidance to get you started or keep it fresh? Mindworks Meditation Courses are a great resource. Sign up now, to get access to a wealth of clear, easy-to-follow instructions, guided meditations, inspiring talks and programs presented by internationally renowned meditation experts. What are you waiting for, Einstein?

Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brain

Buddhist and meditation teacher Tara Brach leads a Vipassana meditation group at the River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda. (Andrea Bruce Woodall/The Washington Post) May 26, 2015

Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, was one of the first scientists to take the anecdotal claims about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness and test them in brain scans. What she found surprised her — that meditating can literally change your brain. She explains:

Q: Why did you start looking at meditation and mindfulness and the brain?

Lazar: A friend and I were training for the Boston marathon. I had some running injuries, so I saw a physical therapist who told me to stop running and just stretch. So I started practicing yoga as a form of physical therapy. I started realizing that it was very powerful, that it had some real benefits, so I just got interested in how it worked.

The yoga teacher made all sorts of claims, that yoga would increase your compassion and open your heart. And I’d think, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m here to stretch.’ But I started noticing that I was calmer. I was better able to handle more difficult situations. I was more compassionate and open hearted, and able to see things from others’ points of view.

I thought, maybe it was just the placebo response. But then I did a literature search of the science, and saw evidence that meditation had been associated with decreased stress, decreased depression, anxiety, pain and insomnia, and an increased quality of life.

At that point, I was doing my PhD in molecular biology. So I just switched and started doing this research as a post-doc.

Q: How did you do the research?

Lazar: The first study looked at long term meditators vs a control group. We found long-term meditators have an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex. Which makes sense. When you’re mindful, you’re paying attention to your breathing, to sounds, to the present moment experience, and shutting cognition down. It stands to reason your senses would be enhanced.

We also found they had more gray matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and executive decision making.

It’s well-documented that our cortex shrinks as we get older – it’s harder to figure things out and remember things. But in this one region of the prefrontal cortex, 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter as 25-year-olds.

So the first question was, well, maybe the people with more gray matter in the study had more gray matter before they started meditating. So we did a second study.

We took people who’d never meditated before, and put one group through an eight-week mindfulness- based stress reduction program.

Q: What did you find?

Lazar: We found differences in brain volume after eight weeks in five different regions in the brains of the two groups. In the group that learned meditation, we found thickening in four regions:

1. The primary difference, we found in the posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self relevance.

2. The left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation.

3. The temporo parietal junction, or TPJ, which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion.

4. An area of the brain stem called the Pons, where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.

The amygdala, the fight or flight part of the brain which is important for anxiety, fear and stress in general. That area got smaller in the group that went through the mindfulness-based stress reduction program.

The change in the amygdala was also correlated to a reduction in stress levels.

Q: So how long does someone have to meditate before they begin to see changes in their brain?

Lazar: Our data shows changes in the brain after just eight weeks.

In a mindfulness-based stress reduction program, our subjects took a weekly class. They were given a recording and told to practice 40 minutes a day at home. And that’s it.

Q: So, 40 minutes a day?

Lazar: Well, it was highly variable in the study. Some people practiced 40 minutes pretty much every day. Some people practiced less. Some only a couple times a week.

In my study, the average was 27 minutes a day. Or about a half hour a day.

There isn’t good data yet about how much someone needs to practice in order to benefit.

Meditation teachers will tell you, though there’s absolutely no scientific basis to this, but anecdotal comments from students suggest that 10 minutes a day could have some subjective benefit. We need to test it out.

We’re just starting a study that will hopefully allow us to assess what the functional significance of these changes are. Studies by other scientists have shown that meditation can help enhance attention and emotion regulation skills. But most were not neuroimaging studies. So now we’re hoping to bring that behavioral and neuroimaging science together.

Q: Given what we know from the science, what would you encourage readers to do?

Lazar: Mindfulness is just like exercise. It’s a form of mental exercise, really. And just as exercise increases health, helps us handle stress better and promotes longevity, meditation purports to confer some of those same benefits.

But, just like exercise, it can’t cure everything. So the idea is, it’s useful as an adjunct therapy. It’s not a standalone. It’s been tried with many, many other disorders, and the results vary tremendously – it impacts some symptoms, but not all. The results are sometimes modest. And it doesn’t work for everybody.

It’s still early days for trying to figure out what it can or can’t do.

Q: So, knowing the limitations, what would you suggest?

Lazar: It does seem to be beneficial for most people. The most important thing, if you’re going to try it, is to find a good teacher. Because it’s simple, but it’s also complex. You have to understand what’s going on in your mind. A good teacher is priceless

Q: Do you meditate? And do you have a teacher?

Lazar: Yes and yes.

Q: What difference has it made in your life?

Lazar: I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, so it’s had a very profound influence on my life. It’s very grounding. It’s reduced stress. It helps me think more clearly. It’s great for interpersonal interactions. I have more empathy and compassion for people.

Q: What’s your own practice?

Lazar: Highly variable. Some days 40 minutes. Some days five minutes. Some days, not at all. It’s a lot like exercise. Exercising three times a week is great. But if all you can do is just a little bit every day, that’s a good thing, too. I’m sure if I practiced more, I’d benefit more. I have no idea if I’m getting brain changes or not. It’s just that this is what works for me right now.

To find out more, Sara Lazar has put together lists of Frequently Asked Questions and how to find a good teacher. Click here.

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How Meditation Changes the Structure of Your Brain

Credit: bodymindmatters.com

Reseach continues to show that meditation has a powerful impact upon regions of the brain associated with stress, empathy, and sense of self. But would you believe it can occur in just eight weeks? It can, according to a new Harvard study.

This new research found measurable changes in the brain after an eight-week program. A report of the study from the Harvard Gazette, published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, pointed out that the study is the first to document meditation-produced changes over time in the brain’s gray matter.

“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” says study senior author Sara Lazar. “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”

Previous studies from Lazar’s group and others found structural differences between the brains of experienced meditation practitioners and individuals with no history of meditation, observing thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotional integration. But those investigations could not document that those differences were actually produced by meditation.

For the current study, magnetic resonance (MR) images were taken of the brain structure of 16 study participants two weeks before and after they took part in the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. In addition to weekly meetings that included practice of mindfulness meditation—which focuses on nonjudgmental awareness of sensations, feelings, and state of mind—participants received audio recordings for guided meditation practice and were asked to keep track of how much time they practiced each day. A set of MR brain images was also taken of a control group of nonmeditators over a similar time interval.

Meditation group participants reported spending an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness exercises, and their responses to a mindfulness questionnaire indicated significant improvements compared with pre-participation responses. The analysis of MR images, which focused on areas where meditation-associated differences were seen in earlier studies, found increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.

Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. Although no change was seen in a self-awareness-associated structure called the insula, which had been identified in earlier studies, the authors suggest that longer-term meditation practice might be needed to produce changes in that area. None of these changes were seen in the control group, indicating that they had not resulted merely from the passage of time.

“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life,” says Britta Hölzel. “Other studies in different patient populations have shown that meditation can make significant improvements in a variety of symptoms, and we are now investigating the underlying mechanisms in the brain that facilitate this change.”

Amishi Jha, who investigates mindfulness-training’s effects on individuals in high-stress situations, says, “These results shed light on the mechanisms of action of mindfulness-based training. They demonstrate that the first-person experience of stress can not only be reduced with an eight-week mindfulness training program but that this experiential change corresponds with structural changes in the amygdala, a finding that opens doors to many possibilities for further research on MBSR’s potential to protect against stress-related disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.” Jha was not one of the study investigators.

Center for Progressive Development

Blog: Progressive Impact

© 2015 Douglas LaBier

The practice of mindfulness meditation has moved: once found only in yoga studios and on the new-age fringes, it has now taken a place in mainstream medicine.

Mindfulness applications are now routinely used to reduce and manage stress, depression, chronic pain, and other chronic health conditions.

In mindfulness training, individuals learn to focus their attention on what is happening in the present moment. They usually start by paying attention to their breathing, by simply becoming aware of each in-breath and each out-breath.

Why you should meditate

Mindfulness allows for a nonjudgmental awareness of sensations, feelings, and states of mind—it lets people be aware of their thoughts but not get carried away by them.

Scientists have known for some time that meditation is a very effective technique for alleviating conditions like anxiety and depression, both of which, if left unchecked, are risk factors that increase the susceptibility to Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Only relatively recently, though, have they discovered that meditation directly affects our grey matter.

Yes, it actually changes the human brain: people who meditate experience changes in brain structure that those who do not meditate do not experience. The evidence suggests that mindfulness meditation can also increase the structural connectivity between brain areas, as measured by white matter tracts in the brain, and that it can decrease the rate of cellular aging.

And now a landmark study has shown not only that meditation can change our brains for the better but also that it can do so in just eight weeks—even if we have never meditated before. It seems it is never too late or too onerous to learn brain-healthy practices.

Meditation changes your brain

The website food.ndtv.com describes this study as follows. In a study published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, U.S. researchers measured the brains of 16 people who had never meditated before and then again after they had completed an eight-week meditation program. During that time, the group spent an average of 27 minutes a day practising mindfulness meditation.

At the end of the study the researchers found there was increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with learning and memory, and in other brain structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. There was also a reduction in the size of the amygdala, the part of the brain that registers anxiety and stress.

Keeping calm

In addition, a UCLA study published in 2009 that used high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan participants’ brains found increased volumes in the brain regions known for regulating emotions—the hippocampus and areas within the orbitofrontal cortex, the thalamus, and the inferior temporal gyrus—in long-term meditators (who used various meditation techniques) compared to non-meditators.

The implication is clear: meditation can lead to a calmer existence due to enhanced emotional control that is tied directly to changes in the brain that are caused by the meditation itself. No wonder meditation is prescribed as a stress reliever!

Start meditating

Meditation is an area of medical treatment that is rapidly evolving as we learn more about its benefits. To test it for yourself, you might want to try this five-minute mindfulness meditation practice.

• Sit on the floor or on a chair. Make sure your back is straight and arms relaxed. Or, if it is more comfort- able for you, lie on the floor.
• Bring your attention to your breath for one minute. Feel how your belly rises and falls.
• Widen your attention to include all your bodily sensations and any thoughts or feelings you may be having.
• Try to be a neutral observer of your thoughts and feelings. If you find yourself swept up in a train of thought or emotion, just return to focusing on your breath.

(For more about the benefits of meditation, I also recommend the following website: www.mindful.org)

Bottom line: reducing your levels of stress through activities like exercise and meditation can decrease the rate of cellular aging and therefore decrease your risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other dementia.

Printed with permission from A Woman’s Guide to Healthy Aging by Vivien Brown M.D.(Barlow Books.) Available in stores on September 23 and for pre-order online.

What is Meditation and How It Affects Our Brains

Ever since my dad tried to convince me to meditate when I was about 12, I’ve been fairly skeptical of this practice. It always seemed to be so vague and hard to understand that I just decided it wasn’t for me.

More recently, I’ve actually found how simple (not easy, but simple) meditation can be and what huge benefit it can have for my day to day happiness. As an adult, I first started my meditation practice with just two minute per day. Two minutes! I got that idea from Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits blog, where he points out how starting with a tiny habit is the first step to consistently achieving it. So even thought two minutes won’t make much difference, that’s where I started.

Whether you’re as skeptical as I used to be, or you’re well ahead of me with a meditation habit of several hours, I think it’s always interesting to find out how new habits affect our brains. I had a look into meditation to see what’s going on inside our brains when we do this, and what I found is pretty interesting.

What is meditation?

There are different ways to meditate, and since it’s such a personal practice there are probably more than any of us know about. There are a couple that are usually focused on heavily in scientific research, though. These are focused-attention, or mindful meditation, which is where you focus on one specific thing—it could be your breathing, a sensation in your body or a particular object outside of you. The point of this type of meditation is to focus strongly on one point and continually bring your attention back to that focal point when it wanders.

The other type of meditation that’s often used in research is open-monitoring meditation. This is where you pay attention to all of the things happening around you—you simply notice everything without reacting.

What happens in your brain when you meditate

This is where things get really interesting. Using modern technology like fMRI scans, scientists have developed a more thorough understanding of what’s taking place in our brains when we meditate, kind of similar to how scientists have previously looked at measuring creativity in our brains.

The overall difference is that our brains stop processing information as actively as they normally would. We start to show a decrease in beta waves, which indicate that our brains are processing information, even after a single 20-minute meditation session if we’ve never tried it before.

In the image below you can see how the beta waves (shown in bright colors on the left) are dramatically reduced during meditation (on the right).

Below is the best explanation I found of what happens in each part of the brain during meditation:

Frontal lobe
This is the most highly evolved part of the brain, responsible for reasoning, planning, emotions and self-conscious awareness. During meditation, the frontal cortex tends to go offline.

Parietal lobe
This part of the brain processes sensory information about the surrounding world, orienting you in time and space. During meditation, activity in the parietal lobe slows down.

Thalamus
The gatekeeper for the senses, this organ focuses your attention by funneling some sensory data deeper into the brain and stopping other signals in their tracks. Meditation reduces the flow of incoming information to a trickle.

Reticular formation
As the brain’s sentry, this structure receives incoming stimuli and puts the brain on alert, ready to respond. Meditating dials back the arousal signal.

How meditation affects us

Now that we know what’s going on inside our brains, let’s take a look at the research into the ways it affects our health. It’s in fact very similar to how exercising affects our brains.

Better focus

Because meditation is a practice in focusing our attention and being aware of when it drifts, this actually improves our focus when we’re not meditating, as well. It’s a lasting effect that comes from regular bouts of meditation.

Focused attention is very much like a muscle, one that needs to be strengthened through exercise.

Less anxiety

This point is pretty technical, but it’s really interesting. The more we meditate, the less anxiety we have, and it turns out this is because we’re actually loosening the connections of particular neural pathways. This sounds bad, but it’s not.

What happens without meditation is that there’s a section of our brains that’s sometimes called the Me Center (it’s technically the medial prefrontal cortex). This is the part that processes information relating to ourselves and our experiences. Normally the neural pathways from the bodily sensation and fear centers of the brain to the Me Center are really strong. When you experience a scary or upsetting sensation, it triggers a strong reaction in your Me Center, making you feel scared and under attack.

When we meditate, we weaken this neural connection. This means that we don’t react as strongly to sensations that might have once lit up our Me Centers. As we weaken this connection, we simultaneously strengthen the connection between what’s known as our Assessment Center (the part of our brains known for reasoning) and our bodily sensation and fear centers. So when we experience scary or upsetting sensations, we can more easily look at them rationally. Here’s a good example:

For example, when you experience pain, rather than becoming anxious and assuming it means something is wrong with you, you can watch the pain rise and fall without becoming ensnared in a story about what it might mean.

More creativity

As a writer, this is one thing I’m always interested in and we’ve explored the science of creativity in depth before. Unfortunately, it’s not the most easy thing to study, but there is some research into how meditation can affect our creativity. Researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands studied both focused-attention and open-monitoring mediation to see if there was any improvement in creativity afterwards. They found that people who practiced focused-attention meditation did not show any obvious signs of improvement in the creativity task following their meditation. For those who did open-monitoring meditation, however, they performed better on a task that asked them to come up with new ideas.

More compassion

Research on meditation has shown that empathy and compassion are higher in those who practice meditation regularly. One experiment showed participants images of other people that were either good, bad or neutral in what they called “compassion meditation.” The participants were able to focus their attention and reduce their emotional reactions to these images, even when they weren’t in a meditative state. They also experienced more compassion for others when shown disturbing images.

Part of this comes from activity in the amygdala—the part of the brain that processes emotional stimuli. During meditation, this part of the brain normally shows decreased activity, but in this experiment it was exceptionally responsive when participants were shown images of people.

Another study in 2008 found that people who meditated regularly had stronger activation levels in their temporal parietal junctures (a part of the brain tied to empathy) when they heard the sounds of people suffering, than those who didn’t meditate.

Better memory

One of the things meditation has been linked to is improving rapid memory recall. Catherine Kerr, a researcher at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and the Osher Research Center found that people who practiced mindful meditation were able to adjust the brain wave that screens out distractions and increase their productivity more quickly that those that did not meditate. She said that this ability to ignore distractions could explain “their superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts.” This seems to be very similar to the power of being exposed to new situations that will also dramatically improve our memory of things.

Less stress

Mindful meditation has been shown to help people perform under pressure while feeling less stressed. A 2012 study split a group of human resources managers into three, which one third participating in mindful meditation training, another third taking body relaxation training and the last third given no training at all. A stressful multitasking test was given to all the managers before and after the eight-week experiment. In the final test, the group that had participated in the meditation training reported less stress during the test than both of the other groups.

More gray matter

Meditation has been linked to larger amounts of gray matter in the hippocampus and frontal areas of the brain. I didn’t know what this meant at first, but it turns out it’s pretty great. More gray matter can lead to more positive emotions, longer-lasting emotional stability and heightened focus during daily life.

Meditation has also been shown to diminish age-related effects on gray matter and reduce the decline of our cognitive functioning.

Getting started with Meditation

Here’s a great infographic that gives an overview of the different kinds of meditation and some tips for fitting in meditation at work.

An awesome app to get started with meditation – Getheadspace

Note from Leo: One of the best apps I’ve come across to help you get started with Meditation is called Headspace. Invented by a former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe, this is meditation geared towards busy people like you and me.

The way it works is that Andy guides you through 10 minutes of simple meditation every day. You don’t have to do anything, just sit down and turn on the app and let Andy’s calm voice (his voice is truly amazing – the app is worth trying just for that!) explain to you how to approach meditation.

The best part about the app is of course that it’s completely free! For any beginning meditator, this is the best option I’ve come across to start reaping the amazing benefits of meditation and start on a new path to a happier life.

Over to you now. Have you played with the thought of meditation or have you been doing it before? I’d love your comments on the topic below, you can also email me or find me on Twitter at @BelleBethCooper.

Image credits: Free Meditation, Suzanne Morgan Yoga, Keith Ramsey

Originally written Aug 21, 2013. Last updated Apr 1, 2016

As you read this, wiggle your toes. Feel the way they push against your shoes, and the weight of your feet on the floor. Really think about what your feet feel like right now – their heaviness.

If you’ve never heard of mindfulness meditation, congratulations, you’ve just done a few moments of it. More people than ever are doing some form of this stress-busting meditation, and researchers are discovering it has some quite extraordinary effects on the brains of those who do it regularly.

Originally an ancient Buddhist meditation technique, in recent years mindfulness has evolved into a range of secular therapies and courses, most of them focused on being aware of the present moment and simply noticing feelings and thoughts as they come and go.

Credit: Sebastien Wiertz via Flickr

It’s been accepted as a useful therapy for anxiety and depression for around a decade, and mindfulness websites like GetSomeHeadSpace.com are attracting millions of subscribers. It’s being explored by schools, pro sports teams and military units to enhance performance, and is showing promise as a way of helping sufferers of chronic pain, addiction and tinnitus, too. There is even some evidence that mindfulness can help with the symptoms of certain physical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and HIV.

Yet until recently little was known about how a few hours of quiet reflection each week could lead to such an intriguing range of mental and physical effects. Now, as the popularity of mindfulness grows, brain imaging techniques are revealing that this ancient practice can profoundly change the way different regions of the brain communicate with each other – and therefore how we think – permanently.

Mindfulness practice and expertise is associated with a decreased volume of grey matter in the amygdala (red), a key stress-responding region. (Image courtesy of Adrienne Taren)

No fear

MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s “fight or flight” center, the amygdala, appears to shrink. This primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress.

As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex – associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making – becomes thicker.

The “functional connectivity” between these regions – i.e. how often they are activated together – also changes. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger.

The scale of these changes correlate with the number of hours of meditation practice a person has done, says Adrienne Taren, a researcher studying mindfulness at the University of Pittsburgh.

“The picture we have is that mindfulness practice increases one’s ability to recruit higher order, pre-frontal cortex regions in order to down-regulate lower-order brain activity,” she says.

In other words, our more primal responses to stress seem to be superseded by more thoughtful ones.

Lots of activities can boost the size of various parts of the pre-frontal cortex – video games, for example – but it’s the disconnection of our mind from its “stress center” that seems to give rise to a range of physical as well as mental health benefits, says Taren.

“I’m definitely not saying mindfulness can cure HIV or prevent heart disease. But we do see a reduction in biomarkers of stress and inflammation. Markers like C-reactive proteins, interleukin 6 and cortisol – all of which are associated with disease.”

Feel the pain

Things get even more interesting when researchers study mindfulness experts experiencing pain. Advanced meditators report feeling significantly less pain than non-meditators. Yet scans of their brains show slightly more activity in areas associated with pain than the non-meditators.

“It doesn’t fit any of the classic models of pain relief, including drugs, where we see less activity in these areas,” says Joshua Grant, a postdoc at the Max Plank Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany. The expert mindfulness meditators also showed “massive” reductions in activity in regions involved in appraising stimuli, emotion and memory, says Grant.

Again, two regions that are normally functionally connected, the anterior cingulate cortex (associated with the unpleasantness of pain) and parts of the prefrontal cortex, appear to become “uncoupled” in meditators.

“It seems Zen practitioners were able to remove or lessen the aversiveness of the stimulation – and thus the stressing nature of it – by altering the connectivity between two brain regions which are normally communicating with one another,” says Grant. “They certainly don’t seem to have blocked the experience. Rather, it seems they refrained from engaging in thought processes that make it painful.”

Credit: Balint Földesi via Flickr

Feeling Zen

It’s worth noting that although this study tested expert meditators, they were not in a meditative state – the pain-lessening effect is not something you have to work yourself up into a trance to achieve; instead, it seems to be a permanent change in their perception.

“We asked them specifically not to meditate,” says Grant. “There is just a huge difference in their brains. There is no question expert meditators’ baseline states are different.”

Other studies on expert meditators – that is, subjects with at least 40,000 hours of mindfulness practice under their belt – discovered that their resting brain looks similar, when scanned, to the way a normal person’s does when he or she is meditating.

At this level of expertise, the pre-frontal cortex is no longer bigger than expected. In fact, its size and activity start to decrease again, says Taren. “It’s as if that way of thinking has becomes the default, it is automatic – it doesn’t require any concentration.”

There’s still much to discover, especially in terms of what is happening when the brain comprehends the present moment, and what other effects mindfulness might have on people. Research on the technique is still in its infancy, and the imprecision of brain imaging means researchers have to make assumptions about what different regions of the brain are doing.

Both Grant and Taren, and others, are in the middle of large, unprecedented studies that aim to isolate the effects of mindfulness from other methods of stress-relief, and track exactly how the brain changes over a long period of meditation practice.

“I’m really excited about the effects of mindfulness,” says Taren. “It’s been great to see it move away from being a spiritual thing towards proper science and clinical evidence, as stress is a huge problem and has a huge impact on many people’s health. Being able to take time out and focus our mind is increasingly important.”

Perhaps it is the new age, quasi-spiritual connotations of meditation that have so far prevented mindfulness from being hailed as an antidote to our increasingly frantic world. Research is helping overcome this perception, and ten minutes of mindfulness could soon become an accepted, stress-busting part of our daily health regimen, just like going to the gym or brushing our teeth.

Ever since my dad tried to convince me to meditate when I was about 12, I’ve been fairly skeptical of this practice. It always seemed so vague and hard to understand that I just decided it wasn’t for me. More recently, I’ve actually found how simple (not easy, but simple) meditation can be and what huge benefit it can have for my day to day happiness.

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As an adult, I first started my meditation practice with just two minutes per day. Two minutes! I got that idea from Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits blog, where he points out how starting with a tiny habit is the first step to consistently achieving it. So even thought two minutes won’t make much difference, that’s where I started. Whether you’re as skeptical as I used to be, or you’re well ahead of me with a meditation habit of several hours, I think it’s always interesting to find out how new habits affect our brains. I had a look into meditation to see what’s going on inside our brains when we do this, and what I found is pretty interesting.

What is Meditation?

There are different ways to meditate, and since it’s such a personal practice there are probably more than any of us know about. There are a couple that are usually focused on heavily in scientific research, though. These are focused-attention, or mindful meditation, which is where you focus on one specific thing—it could be your breathing, a sensation in your body or a particular object outside of you. The point of this type of meditation is to focus strongly on one point and continually bring your attention back to that focal point when it wanders.

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The other type of meditation that’s often used in research is open-monitoring meditation. This is where you pay attention to all of the things happening around you—you simply notice everything without reacting.

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What Happens in Your Brain When You Meditate

This is where things get really interesting. Using modern technology like fMRI scans, scientists have developed a more thorough understanding of what’s taking place in our brains when we meditate. The overall difference is that our brains stop processing information as actively as they normally would. We start to show a decrease in beta waves, which indicate that our brains are processing information, even after a single 20-minute meditation session if we’ve never tried it before.

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In the image below you can see how the beta waves (shown in bright colors on the left) are dramatically reduced during meditation (on the right).

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Below is the best explanation I found of what happens in each part of the brain during meditation:

Frontal lobe
This is the most highly evolved part of the brain, responsible for reasoning, planning, emotions and self-conscious awareness. During meditation, the frontal cortex tends to go offline.

Parietal lobe
This part of the brain processes sensory information about the surrounding world, orienting you in time and space. During meditation, activity in the parietal lobe slows down.

Thalamus
The gatekeeper for the senses, this organ focuses your attention by funneling some sensory data deeper into the brain and stopping other signals in their tracks. Meditation reduces the flow of incoming information to a trickle.

Reticular formation
As the brain’s sentry, this structure receives incoming stimuli and puts the brain on alert, ready to respond. Meditating dials back the arousal signal.

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How Meditation Affects You

Now that we know what’s going on inside our brains, let’s take a look at the research into the ways it affects our health.

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Better Focus

Because meditation is a practice in focusing our attention and being aware of when it drifts, this actually improves our focus when we’re not meditating, as well. It’s a lasting effect that comes from regular bouts of meditation.

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Less Anxiety

This point is pretty technical, but it’s really interesting. The more we meditate, the less anxiety we have, and it turns out this is because we’re actually loosening the connections of particular neural pathways. This sounds bad, but it’s not.

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What happens without meditation is that there’s a section of our brains that’s sometimes called the Me Center (it’s technically the medial prefrontal cortex). This is the part that processes information relating to ourselves and our experiences. Normally the neural pathways from the bodily sensation and fear centers of the brain to the Me Center are really strong. When you experience a scary or upsetting sensation, it triggers a strong reaction in your Me Center, making you feel scared and under attack.

When we meditate, we weaken this neural connection. This means that we don’t react as strongly to sensations that might have once lit up our Me Centers. As we weaken this connection, we simultaneously strengthen the connection between what’s known as our Assessment Center (the part of our brains known for reasoning) and our bodily sensation and fear centers. So when we experience scary or upsetting sensations, we can more easily look at them rationally. Here’s a good example:

For example, when you experience pain, rather than becoming anxious and assuming it means something is wrong with you, you can watch the pain rise and fall without becoming ensnared in a story about what it might mean.

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More Creativity

As a writer, this is one thing I’m always interested in. Unfortunately, it’s not the easiest thing to study, but there is some research into how meditation can affect our creativity.

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Researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands studied both focused-attention and open-monitoring mediation to see if there was any improvement in creativity afterwards. They found that people who practiced focused-attention meditation did not show any obvious signs of improvement in the creativity task following their meditation. For those who did open-monitoring meditation, however, they performed better on a task that asked them to come up with new ideas.

More Compassion

Research on meditation has shown that empathy and compassion are higher in those who practice meditation regularly. One experiment showed participants images of other people that were either good, bad or neutral in what they called “compassion meditation.” The participants were able to focus their attention and reduce their emotional reactions to these images, even when they weren’t in a meditative state. They also experienced more compassion for others when shown disturbing images.

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Part of this comes from activity in the amygdala—the part of the brain that processes emotional stimuli. During meditation, this part of the brain normally shows decreased activity, but in this experiment it was exceptionally responsive when participants were shown images of people.

Another study in 2008 found that people who meditated regularly had stronger activation levels in their temporal parietal junctures (a part of the brain tied to empathy) when they heard the sounds of people suffering, than those who didn’t meditate.

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Better Memory

One of the things meditation has been linked to is improving rapid memory recall. Catherine Kerr, a researcher at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and the Osher Research Center found that people who practiced mindful meditation were able to adjust the brain wave that screens out distractions and increase their productivity more quickly that those that did not meditate. She said that this ability to ignore distractions could explain “their superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts.” This seems to be very similar to the power of being exposed to new situations that will also dramatically improve our memory of things.

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Less Stress

Mindful meditation has been shown to help people perform under pressure while feeling less stressed. A 2012 study split a group of human resources managers into three, which one third participating in mindful meditation training, another third taking body relaxation training and the last third given no training at all. A stressful multitasking test was given to all the managers before and after the eight-week experiment. In the final test, the group that had participated in the meditation training reported less stress during the test than both of the other groups.

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More Gray Matter

Meditation has been linked to larger amounts of gray matter in the hippocampus and frontal areas of the brain. I didn’t know what this meant at first, but it turns out it’s pretty great. More gray matter can lead to more positive emotions, longer-lasting emotional stability, and heightened focus during daily life.

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Meditation has also been shown to diminish age-related effects on gray matter and reduce the decline of our cognitive functioning.

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A Note on Getting Started

One of the best (free!) apps I’ve come across to help you get started with meditation is called Headspace. Invented by former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe, this is meditation geared towards busy people like you and me. Andy guides you through 10 minutes of simple meditation every day. You don’t have to do anything—just sit down and turn on the app and let Andy’s calm voice (his voice is truly amazing–the app is worth trying just for that!) explain how to approach meditation.

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The Power of Meditation and How It Affects Our Brains | Buffer

Belle is a Content Crafter at Buffer, where she writes about productivity, lifehacking, writing, and social media. She also co-founded Melbourne startup Hello Code and spends most of her free time in the theatre.

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Want to see your work on Lifehacker? Email Tessa.

WATCH: Here’s What Meditation Is Doing to Your Brain

Meditation is certainly not a new practice, by any stretch, and there’s a scientific reason why it’s stuck around for so many years.

According to the latest episode of AsapSCIENCE, brain scans taken of people meditating have shown increased activity in areas of the brain that are directly correlated to decreased anxiety and depression, and increased tolerance for pain. One such area is called the Default Mode Network (DMN), which activates when our minds are at rest and not distracted by what’s going on in the outside world. When your DMN is most active, it’s thought to improve your ability to form and recall memories, increase your sense of self-awareness, and could even be linked to bouts of creativity if you let your thoughts wander off.

Another possible benefit of meditation is that it makes it easier for you to be a kinder, more patient human. When scientists compared the brains of Buddhist monks, who have been meditating for much of their lives, and new meditators, they found the region of the brain associated with empathy to be much more pronounced in the monks.

“It also literally changes your brainwaves, and we can measure these frequencies,” says AsapSCIENCE. “Meditators have higher levels of an alpha wave, which has been shown to reduce feelings of negative mood, tension, sadness, and anger.”

Not only that, but meditation also appears to influence the physical shape and size of your brain. Observations of people who have been meditating for eight weeks revealed that grey matter – which facilitates more efficient processing – was more dense in areas associated with learning, memory formation, and emotion regulation. But in the amygdala, which is related to feelings of stress, fear, and heightened blood pressure? Decreased grey matter.

And that’s just the brain. Studies suggest that mediation can also have an effect on everything from a person’s heart health to the strength of their immune system. Watch the latest episode of AsapSCIENCE above to find out why, and head to their YouTube page to find the list of studies mentioned.

Brb, I’ve got some quiet sitting to do.

Source: AsapSCIENCE

Harnessing Neuroplasticity: 9 Key Brain Regions Upgraded Through Meditation

So, What Is Neuroplasticity? Blowing away decades of scientific dogma, the recently discovered “neuroplastic” nature of the brain means that our potential is not set at birth — we can actually strengthen and improve our brain in ways once believed impossible.

Rebecca Gladding M.D., author of “You Are Not Your Brain” recently wrote: “The brain, and how we are able to mold it, is fascinating and nothing short of amazing.”

Scientists Agree: Meditation Is The #1 Brain Changer. So, what’s the best way to build a better brain? Backed by 1000’s of studies, meditation is the neuroscientific community’s most proven way to upgrade the human brain.

Here we dive into 9 key brain regions enhanced through meditation, with a focus on the massive life-transforming implications.

#1: The “At-One” Parietal Lobe — How Meditation Makes You Feel Connected

Dealing With Loneliness

To be a happy and healthy human, most of us know that we need to sleep well, eat right, and exercise.

However, very few of us realize just how important “human connectedness” is to our overall mental, emotional, and physical well-being. We are social creatures after all.

According to a highly referenced 300,000+ person study published in the esteemed ‘PLOS Medicine’ journal, people with the most social relationships (both quantity & quality) are not only much happier, but live 50%+ longer (!) than the rest of us lonely folks.

Another study by UCLA Professor of Medicine Dr. Steve Cole showed that “feeling connected” to others strengthens immunity, while other studies have cited lower levels of anxiety and depression, higher self esteem and empathy, the list goes on.

Because of the human mind’s tendency to obsess over the past and worry about the future (instead of simply being present), too much time alone can have real mental and physical health consequences.

How Meditation Trains The Brain To Overcome Loneliness

Thinking back, when were your happiest times? For most folks, those precious, magical moments with beloved friends and family quickly come to mind.

Whether we are playing games, eating, drinking, talking, or laughing with our loved ones, the natural human connection we feel anchors our awareness firmly into the present (instead of worrying and obsessing when alone).

While the very best cure for loneliness is a strong “in-person” social network (i.e. not Facebook) and a loving family, this isn’t possible for everybody. Unless we go back to tribal living like our ancient ancestors, a more realistic solution is ideal.

Luckily, neuroscientists are on it. When we feel isolated and separated from the “whole,” one particular brain region (the “parietal lobe”) becomes overheated.

To prevent your car engine from burning up, you need a good radiator. To ensure loneliness doesn’t roast your brain, you need to keep your parietal lobe calm, cool, and collected. Thankfully, meditation is up to the task.

Meditation Is Your Best Friend

A University of Pennsylvania scientist, Dr. Andrew Newberg, took brain images of Tibetan Monks during meditation. As expected, their “highly intelligent” frontal lobes lit up the screen, just like countless other studies had shown.

However, what surprised him most was that the meditators’ “third-dimensional” based parietal lobes cooled off immensely, which is the same area that loneliness and social isolation brings to a boil.

Dr. Newburg, now a bestselling author, writes “When people lose their sense of self , feeling a sense of oneness, results in a blurring of the boundary between self and others… no sense of space or passage of time.”

By making us feel connected to everyone and everything, meditation cancels out the detrimental mental, emotional, and physical effects of loneliness. You know, that problem plaguing more than half of modern society.

While friends come and go, meditation will always be there for you.

De-Activated Parietal Lobe Benefits: ▲Feel Connected | ▲Sense of Oneness | ▲Empathy | ▲Compassion | ▲Self-Esteem | ▲Happiness | ▲Present Moment | ▼Social Anxiety | ▼Loneliness | Back To Top Menu

#2: The “Balanced” Corpus Callosum — How Meditation Boosts Creativity, Brain Power

Left Brain Versus Right Brain: The Great Debate

Your brain has two hemispheres, left and right.

According to Dr. Roger Sperry’s Nobel Prize winning “split-brain” studies, like a dominant hand, most of us heavily favor one side of our brain.

“Each hemisphere is a conscious system in its own right, perceiving, thinking, remembering, reasoning, willing, and emoting, all at a characteristically human level,” said the great neuroscientist.

Dr. Sperry’s model suggests that left-brained people are generally more logical, practical, and analytical, often better at math and science. Right-brained people are generally more imaginative, intuitive, and sensual, often excelling at philosophy and the arts.

While a great deal of Dr Sperry’s “left brain / right brain” research still holds true today, certain parts of his model have been updated over the last 40 years. For example, neuroscientists have recently learned that highly creative people are actually “whole brain” thinkers rather than just “right brain” thinkers. However, his “imbalanced” brain findings have stood the test of time. That’s the focus here.

How To Balance Your Brain

Like a tennis player with one big, strong, and coordinated arm and one scrawny, weak, and uncoordinated arm — because our dominant brain hemisphere gets so much action, most of us have “over-strengthened” one side of our noggin while “neglecting” the other.

“Then, what about people like Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Steve jobs, where do they fit into this so called “left brain, right brain” paradigm?”

Brain imaging studies have shown that highly successful, massively creative people use both brain halves in a much more balanced and integrated way than the rest of us. After his brain was posthumously examined, Einstein was found to be in this category.

“I want to make my brain highly connected, balanced, and working “in-sync” like these super humans. Is this possible?”

Yes! Through meditation!

Meditation Balances The Brain, Brings Big Benefits

A 2012 UCLA School of Medicine study found that the “corpus callosum,” the grand central station-like cable of nerves cross-linking the brain hemispheres, was remarkably stronger, thicker, and more well connected in meditation practitioners.

For those of us looking to maximize our potential, what does this monumental neuroplastic “healthy brain” discovery mean?

Harmonizing both brain hemispheres opens the door to a smorgasbord of benefits, with better focus, deeper thought, super creativity, excellent mental health, enhanced memory, and clearer thinking just the start.

Activated Corpus Callosum Benefits: ▲Creativity | ▲Brain Balance | ▲Intuition | ▲Success | ▲Focus | ▲Deep Thought | ▲Mental Health | ▲Memory | ▲Clear Thought | ▲Happiness | ▲Musical Ability | ▲Coordination | ▲Ambidexterity | ▲Vision | ▲Hemispheric Communication | ▼Dyslexia | Back To Top Menu

#3: The “Happy” Hippocampus — How Meditation Ends Depression

The Curious Case of The Shrinking Hippocampus

With 1 in 15 people suffering major depressive disorder (MDD) at any given time, there is no shortage of people ready and willing to put their brain under the microscope in hope of a cure.

Thankfully, with journal after journal of promising insight into the so called “depressed brain,” neuroscientists understand this ugly mental health issue’s moving parts better than ever.

A landmark Washington University School of Medicine study (Sheline et al, 1999) MRI imaged the brains of 48 women, half of which were suffering from major clinical depression. What did they find?

Versus the control group, the “hippocampi” of the depressed patients had atrophied significantly, with a clear link between “number of years depressed” and degree of shrinkage.

To illustrate the findings, when we break our leg, its size and strength slowly dwindle away inside our orthopedic cast. When depression has us on the ropes, our brain’s hippocampus slowly wastes away inside our noggin.

Meditation Changes The Brain, Exterminates Depression

“So, if I want to lift myself out of depression (and prevent it in the future), I need to strengthen my hippocampus. Got it. But my gym doesn’t have a hippocampus machine!”

Save yourself a trip to the gym, meditation is your “ACE Certified” hippocampus personal trainer.

A 2008 study published in the Neuroimage Journal found that, after only 8 weeks of meditation, the left and right “hippocampi” of participants had significantly grown in neural thickness, density, and overall size.

This incredible finding means that adding meditation to your daily routine can, in essence — reverse depression’s dirty wheels no matter how deeply your tires are “dug-in,” while bulletproofing your brain to future attacks.

With headlines like the Independent’s “How The Beatles Meditation Technique Could Cure Depression,” it appears that meditation’s uncanny ability to lift us out of the doldrums is slowly entering mainstream consciousness.

As John Lennon’s famous lyrics so eloquently put it, “Imagine all the people… living for today.” Indeed, a world full of (depression-free) meditators would certainly grant the legendary Beatle his wish.

(Note: The Hippocampus is also the brain’s memory center. Those benefits are continued below.)

#4: The “Remember Everything” Hippocampus — How Meditation Improves Memory, Learning

How Do Some Of Us Maintain Excellent Memory Through Old Age?

We have all forgotten where we left our keys, blanked on a friend’s name, or let a family member’s birthday slip through the cracks.

However, memory loss is not an inevitable part of the aging process. There are plenty of octogenarian brains out there firing on all cylinders, staying sharp as a razor well past the 80 year mark.

Then, how can some of us memorize 100,000 digits of Pi like 72 year old Akira Haraguchi, while others of us can’t even remember our coworkers’ names? It’s all about that big beautiful dome sitting atop your shoulders.

Dr. Larry Squire, a world-renowned University of California (San Diego) psychiatrist, published a groundbreaking paper titled “Memory, Hippocampus, and Brain Systems” — illustrating just how critical the “hippocampus” is to learning and memory.

For those of us looking to ace life’s never-ending exams, climb the career ladder, or win 74 Jeopardy gameshows in a row like the “human fact machine” Ken Jennings, pinpointing this seahorse-shaped brain region has far-reaching implications.

How Meditation Grows Your Brain, Bulletproofs Your Memory

“So, if I want to have great memory and learning ability, then all I need to do is hop in a time-machine and be reborn to new big-brained parents? Sounds plausible.”

Think again. Much like the two aforementioned “legends of memory,” Akira Haraguchi and Ken Jennings, you have the power to build within your cranium a powerful hippocampus. That’s the power of neuroplasticity.

“Then, how do I rewire my brain like these guys? I wanna’ be a brainiac too!”

Meditation!

As one of the most prominent neuroscientists in the world, Harvard University’s Dr. Sara Lazar and colleagues have studied the meditating brain for decades.

Among a long list of awe-inspiring healthy brain discoveries, her research shows that meditation dramatically increases “hippocampal cortical thickness,” with magnitude determined by experience.

In other words, like an artist molding clay, meditation shapes the learning and memory center of our brain into something beautiful.

It was once believed that our intelligence was “set” the day we are born. Luckily, we know better now.

Leak-proof your memory. Learn to superlearn. Discover meditation.

Activated Hippocampus Benefits: ▲Memory | ▲Learning | ▲Study Skills | ▲Spatial Navigation | ▲Mental-GPS | ▲Serotonin | ▲Neurogenesis | ▼Depression | ▼Hyperactivity | ▼Amnesia | ▼Alzheimer’s | Back To Top Menu

#5: The “Compassionate” Anterior Insula — How Meditation Makes You Kinder & Happier

Kind And Compassionate People Are The Happiest

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” — Dalai Lama

What makes us truly happy? Many people believe that “achieving & receiving” makes for the happiest life. But the research says otherwise.

According to the latest science, true happiness comes from practicing compassion. It is when we help our fellow man, when we feel connected to the world, when we give expecting nothing in return, when we are kind just to be kind, and when we see people as “other-selves” instead of “others” — that life takes on meaning and purpose.

In fact, a brain imaging study by University of British Columbia researchers showed that, when we donate to charity, our brain’s “pleasure center” lights up like the full moon on a clear night. Another University of San Diego study found that acts of kindness, generosity, and cooperation spread like wildfire to everyone nearby.

If spreading joy throughout the world wasn’t enough, practicing compassion and kindness opens the door to a host of health benefits. Like what? From living longer, to alleviating anxiety, to lifting depression, to strengthening immunity, the list goes on.

It seems that the old saying “Give… and you shall receive” is anchored in truth.

Becoming More Kind & Compassionate

“Sounds wonderful. I want to be a beacon of light too. But I also want to throw my shoe at humanity from time to time. Aren’t kind and compassionate people born that way?”

According to the science, no. Our brain (and our level of consciousness) can be strengthened like a muscle. That’s the power of neuroplasticity.

To illustrate, we have all heard stories of the elbow throwing, no holds barred Wall Street banker who gave up a life of riches to help others, whether teaching at a rough inner-city school (for little pay) or volunteering at an orphanage in India.

The point is that we can “right the ship” at any point in life. We can level up our human “kindness o’meter” through our thoughts and actions, regardless of our past. We are never “set” in our capacities.

While each day presents multiple opportunities to “spread the love,” shifting into “kindness gear” is easier said than done. Luckily, meditation launches our “compassion consciousness” into orbit.

Meditation Trains Your Brain To Be Kind And Compassionate

And it all starts with the brain. A highly cited UCLA School of Medicine study found that the “right anterior dorsal insula” of meditators to be highly active while in session. What’s the link?

As shown by University of Wisconsin neuroscientists’ brain imaging, this happens to be the same brain area that lights up like a Christmas tree when our “kindness & compassion o-meter” is full bore.

Is it just a coincidence that many of history’s greatest humanitarians were also meditators? Could it be that the ancient practice literally “forged” their brain toward kindness and compassion? Was it meditation’s massive shift in consciousness that propelled them to do such great things?

While becoming a kinder and more compassionate person may not put a Nobel Prize on your trophy shelf, it most certainly can make the day of anyone who crosses your path. It’s often the little things that make the world a better place, the butterfly effect is a powerful thing.

With your freshly upgraded “put yourself in other people’s shoes” and “see your face in others” meditative mindset, how much positive change can you spark in the world?

Change your thoughts. Change your life. Change the world. Discover meditation.

Activated Right Anterior Insula Benefits: ▲Kindness | ▲Compassion | ▲Empathy | ▲Longevity | ▲Immunity | ▲Happiness | ▲Fulfillment | ▲Connectedness | ▲Self-Awareness | ▲High Consciousness | ▲Motor Control | ▲Homeostasis | ▼Anxiety | ▼Depression | ▼Addiction | ▼Chronic Pain | ▼Anger | ▼Fear | Back To Top Menu

#6: The “Emotionally Intelligent” TPJ — How Meditation Boosts EQ

What’s Better, IQ or EQ?

“IQ gets you hired. EQ gets you promoted.” — Time Magazine

What’s the most accurate “successful career” forecasting metric? Is it how much of a “smarty-smartpants” we are? Once upon a time, just about every scientist would have answered yes, “IQ” determines how high we can can soar.

Got a perfect SAT score? The CEO’s corner office has your name on it. You can memorize 1,000 digits of Pi? There is a senate seat waiting for you. Solve a rubix cube in 6.54 seconds? You are on track to head NASA. Does this happen in the real world? No.

Today, we know better. It’s not the super-geniuses that ascend to the top of their respective fields. How high we soar and how far we go has a far more accurate crystal ball.

In 1996, a world-renowned psychologist, Dr. Daniel Goleman, published a groundbreaking book that turned the psychological community on its head.

The Power Of Emotional Intelligence

In his New York Times international bestseller “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Matters More Than IQ,” Dr. Goleman’s case for “EQ over IQ” was so compelling that academic textbooks had to be rewritten in his name.

So, what kind of characteristics do these folks display? People high on the EQ chart tend to be masters of both work and play. They usually have prosperous careers, long-lasting, fulfilling relationships, and tons of friends. They are often generous, empathic, self-motivated, with the ability to love and be loved.

Since we aren’t born with a fixed amount of this elusive characteristic, figuring out how to “fill up the old EQ tank” has been of particular interest to psychologists in recent years. After all, who doesn’t want to be more popular and successful?

How Meditation Builds A Bigger, More Emotionally Intelligent Brain

In 2013, with the goal of mapping out the “EQ” regions of the brain, University of Illinois researchers CT-scanned 152 Vietnam veterans engaging in “emotionally intelligent” centered activities, like (in-person) social interaction.

A landmark finding, the brain map imaging showed one particular region, the “temporoparietal junction (TPJ),” to be especially important. Dubbed the so called EQ “command and control center,” figuring out how to strengthen this area of the brain would, in effect, power up emotional intelligence.

“I would love to be popular and successful. But I think my EQ and therefore, my TPJ might be weak. Should I get a brain transplant?”

Save yourself the headache. Meditation’s got you covered.

In 2016, a team of Spanish and German researchers (Yang et al) fMRI imaged the brains of 13 meditation newbies before and after 40 days of mindfulness training. What did they find?

In addition to massively reducing their anxiety and depression scores (as illustrated by countless other studies), the meditators’ had, in just six short weeks, significantly increased the “internal consistency” of their temporoparietal junction (TPJ).

The Coolest Of The Cool

For those of us looking to climb the career ladder, master social grace, and just do better at life, what does this mean?

By strengthening the brain’s “EQ command & control center,” meditation opens the door to a wonderful and especially important bundle of traits: self-awareness, adaptability, empathy, conscientiousness, self-motivation, emotional balance, the list goes on.

Meditators have been the coolest of the cool for millennia, now confirmed by science.

Activated TPJ Benefits: ▲Emotional Intelligence | ▲Altruism | ▲Motivation | ▲Empathy | ▲Better Relationships | ▲Conscientiousness | ▲Self-Awareness | ▲Information Processing | ▲Perception | ▲Focus | ▲Written Language | ▲Spoken Language | ▲Reading People | ▲Emotional Balance | ▼Social Anxiety | ▼Autism | Back To Top Menu

#7: The “Fear Center” Amygdala — How Meditation Transforms Your Stress Response, Ends Anxiety

Our Brains Are Still Wired Like Cavemen

“That saber tooth looks like he wants free-range human for breakfast. Better grab my spear or get ‘outta here!”

Considering what they dealt with on a daily basis, our primitive hunting and gathering ancient ancestors certainly needed homed-in survival instincts.

To avoid becoming just another prehistoric lunch statistic, our neanderthal forefathers needed within their noggin a highly evolved “fear center” amygdala. They did, and it served them well.

The problem is, our brains are still wired much like our stone-age ancestors. While we live in modern cities free of lions, tigers, and bears — our job stress, money problems, and relationship quarrels still trigger our “fight or flight” fear response eight days a week.

With an estimated eleventeen-zillion studies pointing to stress as the #1 cause of disease, figuring out a way to downsize our primitive amygdala is critical to the future of mankind.

It appears that we can take the “Caveman out of the Cave,” but we can’t take the “Cave out of the Caveman.”

Or can we? Stop the record. Science has discovered a way. It’s called meditation.

Bust Stress Forever By Changing Your Brain

In 2011, Massachusetts General Hospital researchers fMRI brain scanned 51 adults before and after 8 weeks of mindful meditation training. What did they find?

A staggering discovery, the greenhorn meditators had effectively silenced the “electrical activity” within their primitive amygdala(e), and in effect, had far fewer “anxiety, worry, and fear signals” bouncing around their beautiful brains.

However, what shook the neuroscientific community to the core was that the participants had dramatically decreased (!) their amygdala(e) size/volume. And it didn’t take years either, they accomplished this amazing feat in less than two months!

The implications of this finding are tremendous. Knowing that it’s possible to, like a light switch, turn off our primitive “caveman brain,” we can bulletproof ourselves to the well-documented negative effects of stress — with anxiety, depression, and addiction the first moles to get whacked.

The Power Of Meditation: From “Caveman” Brain To “Astronaut” Brain

But there’s more. Other studies have found that meditation grows and “thickens” our prefrontal cortex. What’s that, you say?

From dark caves to sunlit skyscrapers, from incoherent grunting to the world wide web, from the muddy riverbanks to the far reaches of the solar system — we owe our prefrontal cortex a debt of gratitude.

In essence, by shrinking our “Neanderthal” amygdala and growing our “Homo sapien sapien (yes twice)” prefrontal cortex, is meditation the secret to time-warping evolution?

Can meditation shift humanity into a peaceful, space-faring, “Star-Trek-like” Type I civilization, as envisioned by Russian astrophysicist Dr. Nikolai Kardashev?

One thing’s for sure, planet earth could certainly use a little less “caveman” brain and a little more “astronaut” brain.

De-Activated Amygdala Benefits: ▲Health | ▲Immunity | ▲Relaxation Response | ▼Stress | ▼Fear | ▼Fight or Flight | ▼Anxiety | ▼Depression | ▼Cortisol | ▼Worry | ▼Anger | ▼Addiction | ▼Nervousness | ▼Phobias | ▼Bipolar Disorder | Back To Top Menu

#8: The “High Intelligence” Prefrontal Cortex — How Meditation Makes You Smart, Healthy

Einstein Had A Beautiful Brain

As perhaps the greatest scientist to ever walk the earth, Albert Einstein undoubtedly had a very powerful and very unique brain. Founding modern physics ain’t easy.

It turns out that the great physicist’s brain had actually been preserved for a short time after his 1955 death. While a number of photographs were taken, the full slideshow did not see the light of day for over 50 years. And when the pics did surface, every warm-blooded neuroscientist in the world was chomping at the bit.

In 2012, with the full power of modern technology, a Dr. Dean Falk headed Florida State University team compared Einstein’s brain images to those of 85 “normal” human brains. What did they find?

With his “prefrontal cortex” (PFC) perhaps the most striking feature of all, the legendary scientist’s brain dropped egg-head-shaped jaws the world over.

Just how important is this brain region?

The “Prefrontal Cortex:” A.K.A. The “Emperor” Of The Brain

As the brain’s thought orchestrator, complex planner, deep thinker, and high level decision maker, if all the brain regions held an election, the prefrontal cortex would be anointed emperor.

Specifically, it was the overall development, tightly packed gray matter, and vast surface coverage that made Einstein’s prefrontal cortex so unique.

It turns out that modern physics’ “Theory of Relativity” is backed by a whole lotta’ processing power. He was way ahead of his time for good reason.

What if it was possible for us mere mortals to upgrade our brain in the same way? Imagine the possibilities if we each had even a fraction of Einstein’s brilliance?

Hit the brakes. Science has discovered a way. It’s called meditation.

How Meditation “Einsteinifies” Your Brain

A landmark 2005 study by Harvard neuroscientist Dr. Sara Lazar found that experienced meditators had much more neural density, thickness, folds, and electrical activity within their prefrontal cortex.

Sound familiar? That’s also what made Albert Einstein’s brain so unique. Needless to say, the implications of this finding are immense.

Upgrading the “king of all brain regions” opens a whole new dimension of powerful benefits: less anxiety, less depression, more success, more processing power, better decision making, better health, stronger willpower, higher IQ, the list goes on.

To compound this amazing discovery, Dr. Lazar found that the more meditation experience a person had under his/her belt, the more highly developed their prefrontal cortex.

Backed by a mile high stack of studies, the neuroscientific community now sees meditation as the “holy grail” for folks wanting to be smart, healthy, and successful.

Honorable Mention

Another unique area of Einstein’s brain was the “bridge” connecting his left and right hemispheres, the “corpus callosum (CC).” Thought to be responsible for his “otherworldly” creativity, when it comes to “how” his magical brain could have innovated physics to such an epic degree, his “thick and brawny” CC is one titanic reason why. Does meditation upgrade this brain area too? !

“Einsteinify” your brain. Rewire your life. Discover meditation.

Activated Prefrontal Cortex Benefits: ▲Brain Power | ▲Intelligence | ▲Orchestrating Thought | ▲Happiness Center | ▲Decision Making | ▲Willpower | ▲Success | ▲Processing Power | ▲Health | ▲Impulse Control | ▲Personality | ▲Focus | ▲Complex Planning | ▲Executive Brain Functions | ▲Achieving Goals | ▲Complex Reasoning | ▲Appropriate Behavior | ▼Anxiety | ▼Addiction | ▼Distraction | ▼Depression | Back To Top Menu

#9: The “Sleep Gateway” Pons — How Meditation Ends Insomnia

Sleep Quality Versus Sleep Quantity

We have all been there before. Hours after getting into bed, bloodshot eyes still staring at the ceiling. With work looming only three hours away, here’s to hoping the sandman finally grants our wish.

Sleeplessness is not just a minor inconvenience. With our productivity, mood, energy, and health taking a roundhouse kick to the clavicle, chronic insomnia can really crimp our potential.

“I got my eight hours last night, yet today I feel like a zombie. What gives?”

It’s not about being in bed for “X” hours. What matters most is “sleep depth.” Quality over quantity, not everybody gets what they need.

It is the deeper REM level of sleep where we detoxify blood, repair organs, heal wounds, renew cells, build muscle tissue, and so forth. We need about two hours at this stage every night.

“Wait a minute, I only need two hours of sleep each night? That’s easy!”

That’s two hours of “deep” REM sleep, buster. Since we spend about 20% of our night in REM, we actually need much more “sleep” to satisfy the requirement. Think 8 to 10 hours. And that’s assuming our “doorway to slumberland” is not blocked by a “sleep is for the weak” t-shirt wearing bouncer.

With about one in three adults experiencing insomnia at any given time, hitting that “measly” two hour REM “health & happiness” window is easier said than done.

The Power Of Deep “REM” Sleep

If you find yourself feeling tired, drowsy, or fatigued after what should have been a respectable night of shuteye (i.e. spending 8 hours in bed), then your sleep “depth” may be suffering.

Luckily, scientists have studied the sleeping brain for decades, and have it (pretty well) figured out.

Serving as our noggin’s REM on/off switch, the funnily named, brainstem originating “Pons” regulates the main dreamtime chemical: melatonin. Weakness or abnormality within this 2.5 centimeter wide brain region throws sleep an unhittable curveball.

For those of us at war with the sandman, drawing up a strategic battle plan is essential. After all, our mental, emotional, and physical well-being are hanging in the balance.

As the brain’s sleepy “four star general,” fortifying our “pons” would essentially bring a lifetime of peaceful shuteye to all the land.

Meditation Trains The Sleeping Brain

Thankfully, meditation owns the sandman.

In 2014, a team of Harvard and Stanford University researchers showed that meditation, powered by the magic of neuroplasticity, builds up a big and strong sleep centered “Pons.”

In other words, meditation literally molds the brain into a naturally deep sleeping machine.

Regardless of how ravaged your road to slumberland may be, no matter how many potholes your insomnia may have dug over the years, meditation’s “lullaby asphalt” will keep your ride silky smooth.

If you want deep sleep every night of the week, then close your eyes to meditation.

Activated Pons Benefits: ▲Deep REM Sleep | ▲Health | ▲Energy | ▲Healing | ▲Melatonin | ▲Delta Brainwaves | ▲Theta Brainwaves | ▲Lucid Dreaming | ▲Dream Frequency & Quality | ▼Insomnia | Back To Top Menu

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In her current work, she is exploring meditation’s effects on the brains of clinically depressed patients, a group for whom studies have shown meditation to be effective. Working with patients selected and screened by Shapero, Desbordes is performing functional magnetic resonance imaging scans before and after an eight-week course in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, or MBCT.

During the scans, participants complete two tests, one that encourages them to become more aware of their bodies by focusing on their heartbeats (an exercise related to mindfulness meditation), and the other asking them to reflect on phrases common in the self-chatter of depressed patients, such as “I am such a loser,” or “I can’t go on.” After a series of such comments, the participants are asked to stop ruminating on the phrases and the thoughts they trigger. Researchers will measure how quickly subjects can disengage from negative thoughts, typically a difficult task for the depressed.

The process will be repeated for a control group that undergoes muscle relaxation training and depression education instead of MBCT. While it’s possible that patients in the control part of the study also will have reduced depressive symptoms, Desbordes said it should occur via different mechanisms in the brain, a difference that may be revealed by the scans. The work, which received funding from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, has been underway since 2014 and is expected to last into 2019.

Desbordes said she wants to test one prevalent hypothesis about how MBCT works in depressed patients: that the training boosts body awareness in the moment, called interoception, which, by focusing their attention on the here and now, arms participants to break the cycle of self-rumination.

“We know those brain systems involved with interoception, and we know those involved with rumination and depression. I want to test, after taking MBCT, whether we see changes in these networks, particularly in tasks specifically engaging them,” Desbordes said.

Desbordes is part of a community of researchers at Harvard and its affiliated institutions that in recent decades has been teasing out whether and how meditation works.

In the 1970s, when transcendental meditation surged in popularity, Herbert Benson, a professor at Harvard Medical School and what was then Beth Israel Hospital, explored what he called “The Relaxation Response,” identifying it as the common, functional attribute of transcendental meditation, yoga, and other forms of meditation, including deep religious prayer. Benson described this response — which recent investigators say is not as common as he originally thought — as the opposite of the body’s adrenalin-charged “fight or flight” response, which was also identified at Harvard, by physiologist Walter Cannon Bradford in 1915.

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Other MGH researchers also are studying the effects of meditation on the body, including Sara Lazar, who in 2012 used fMRI to show that the brains of subjects thickened after an eight-week meditation course. Work is ongoing at MGH’s Benson-Henry Institute; at HMS and Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine; at the Harvard-affiliated Cambridge Health Alliance, where Zev Schuman-Olivier directs the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion; and among a group of nearly a dozen investigators at Harvard and other Northeastern institutions, including Desbordes and Lazar, who are collaborating through the Mindfulness Research Collaborative.

Among the challenges researchers face is defining mindfulness itself. The word has come to describe a meditation-based practice whose aim is to increase one’s sense of being in the present, but it has also been used to describe a nonmeditative state in which subjects set aside their mental distractions to pay greater attention to the here and now, as in the work of Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer.

Another challenge involves sorting through the many variations of meditative practice.

Recent scientific exploration has largely focused on the secular practice of mindful meditation, but meditation is also a component of several ancient religious traditions, with variations. Even within the community practicing secular mindful meditation, there are variations that may be scientifically meaningful, such as how often one meditates and how long the sessions are. Desbordes herself has an interest in a variation called compassion meditation, whose aim is to increase caring for those around us.

Amid this variation, an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course developed in the 1970s by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center has become something of a clinical and scientific standard. The course involves weekly two- or 2½-hour group training sessions, 45 minutes of daily work on one’s own, and a daylong retreat. The mindfulness-based cognitive therapy used in Desbordes’ current work is a variation on that program and incorporates elements of cognitive behavioral therapy, which involves talk therapy effective in treating depression.

Ultimately, Desbordes said she’s interested in teasing out just what in mindful meditation can work against depression. If researchers can identify what elements are effective, the therapy may be refined to be more successful. Shapero is also interested in using the study to refine treatment. Since some patients benefit from mindfulness meditation and some do not, he’d like to better understand how to differentiate between the two.

“Once we know which ingredients are successful, we can do more of that and less, maybe, of the parts that are less effective,” Desbordes said.

Research funding includes the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

For more information about the Mindfulness & Meditation program at Harvard University, visit its website.

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