My older patients frequently ask me what they can do to maintain a healthy brain and a fit mind. Many of them also believe that doing crossword puzzles works miracles. It can certainly help but it is definitely not enough. In responding to their question I therefore emphasize the necessity to preserve an overall active lifestyle. It is also very important to attend to physical health, sleep well, eat a healthy diet, get regular exercise and keep in touch with family and friends. Emotional well-being is very important as we know that depression, for example, increases risk of dementia. Simply put, everything that is good for you is also good for your brain! Meditation is one of those things.
Meditation and the brain
There exist numerous meditation techniques and reviewing them is not the subject of this post. Suffice it to say that with regular meditation we can quiet the endless mind chatter that we are so used to and this is reflected in the brain´s electrical activity, or brain waves (EEG). We become more focused and more relaxed. Therefore, meditation is an excellent stress reduction method. Meditation has also been claimed to have many health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure and boosting the immune system. However, it should be pointed out that many of the studies in this area are not methodologically sound and better studies are needed.
Recently there has been much interest in the cerebral effects of meditation and studies have revealed meditation-related structural changes in the brain. The cortex (grey matter) of the brain is thicker and has a different gyrification (folding) in certain areas in those who have meditated for a number of years. Meditation has also been found to lead to changes in the tracts (white matter) that carry impulses between various areas of the brain. The areas implicated are in the frontal lobe but the temporal lobe, as well as more posterior areas, are also involved. One study found that the right and left hippocampi, which are mainly involved in learning and memory, were larger in meditators than in the control group. It was suggested that this might be related to the fact that long-term meditation decreases stress but we know that the hippocampus is highly vulnerable to stress. One of the frontal areas often mentioned in this field is the anterior cingulate which plays a key part in self-regulation. This certainly seems to fit well with the known subjective effects of long-term meditation.
Cause or effect?
When you compare the brain structure of seasoned meditators and those who have never meditated it is hard to claim with certainty that observed differences are due to meditation alone. It could be argued that those who start meditating are different from the start. They might, for example, already have a thicker cortex or more efficient circuitry in the areas used in meditation, thus being more likely to stick with it and reap the benefits. However, a recent study showed that meditation-related changes in the brain can be observed after only 11 hours of training in a group of individuals with no prior meditation experience. This change was not due to the effects of relaxation only as the comparison group did relaxation training.
Take care of your brain as well as your body
We all know that people, in particular young people, frequently spend much time in the gym in order to increase physical fitness and improve their looks. An added benefit is better health, in the immediate present as well as later in life. But looking good and having a healthy body is not enough. We need to become aware of the fact that taking care of our brain can also be beneficial in the long term by counteracting the normal aging process in the brain, hopefully making us more cognitively fit. Being fatalistic about brain health is not an option anymore. One way to start taking better care of your brain is to meditate. This should quiet down the chattering monkey which is how Buddhists refer to the untrained, and unfocused, mind.
If you have never tried to meditate a good introduction is this wonderful short meditation. Start once a day and then twice a day, for example at your desk at work. After a while you might want to take a bigger step and increase the time or try other meditation techniques. Enjoy!
Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/oddsock/3701520219/
Berkovich-Ohana, A., Glicksohn, J. & Goldstein, A. (2012). Mindfulness-induced changes in gamma band activity – Implications for the default mode network, self-reference and attention. Clinical Neurophysiology, 123(4), 700-710.
Nolfe, G. (2012). EEG and meditation. Clinical Neurophysiology, 123(4), 631-632.
Ospina MB, Bond K, Karkhaneh M, et al. (2007). Meditation Practices for Health: State of the Research. Evidence Reports/Technology Assessments, No. 155. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
Xue, S., Tang, Y-Y & Posner, M. (2011). Short-term meditation increases network efficiency of the anterior cingulate cortex. NeuroReport, 22, 570-574.