Now a neuroscientist from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School has found physical evidence for why this works.
Comparing the brains of people who meditated with those who did not, neuroscientist Sara Lazar quickly found that people who had been meditating for several years had enhanced sensory perception.
This makes sense, because:
“When you’re mindful, you’re paying attention to your breathing, to sounds, to the present moment experience, and shutting cognition [thinking] down. It stands to reason your senses would be enhanced.”
But when she measured the physical brains of meditators she was amazed to discover something more:
“[Their brains had] more gray matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and executive decision making.”
Of course, this might simply be because those people had bigger brains to start with. So next she measured the brains of another group of people who had never meditated. She did this before and after they started a mindfulness-based stress reduction programme.
After only eight weeks, Sara and her team found significant changes not only in the meditators’ mental capacities but also in the physical sizes of their brains:
- A thickening of the area of the brain involved in self-definition and self-esteem
- A thickening of the part of the brain that assists in learning, cognition, memory, and management of emotions
- A thickening of the part of the brain involved with keeping perspective, empathy, compassion, and interpersonal exchange
- A thickening of the area that produces the neurotransmitters that determine agitation versus amiability, and which then enables us to function with greater peace and confidence
- A shrinking of the part of the brain that worries about our fight or flight decisions
The people she studied were meditating for an average of only around 30 minutes per day. Some said they got benefits from meditating for only ten minutes per day.
Mahatma Gandhi used meditation to bring down the British empire. He said:
“I meditate every morning for an hour. And when my workload is especially high, I get up an hour earlier and I meditate for two hours.”
Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, starts every day with 30 minutes of meditation.
Would you like to reduce stress or increase your self-esteem, learning, memory, empathy, sense of perspective, ability to manage your emotions, or ability to get things done? Will you try meditating for 10-30 minutes a day and see what happens?
Adapted from Inner Leadership: a framework and tools for building inspiration in times of change.
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