The Benefits of Meditation for the Brain
Last year, I got an email about a unique study being conducted at UCLA. Researchers were looking for volunteers with extensive meditation experience. They were conducting MRIs to compare meditators’ brains to non-meditators. This intrigued me. Would they find something significant about my brain? How significant? I’m competitive by nature, so I found the notion that my brain could somehow reflect the extent of my practice both satisfying and unnerving. Satisfying, because it might hold evidence validating my inner experience to the outside world. Unnerving, because compared to other meditators of equal experience, I wondered whether I’d stack up? Yes, I had brain performance anxiety! What if they took one look at my brain and said: “You’ve been practicing for 17 years? Oh honey, find some other hobby!”
I contacted Eileen Luders, who headed the study, and offered to participate. After filling out a questionnaire, I was accepted and assigned a date and time to arrive. I’ve had MRIs before and I’ve never had a problem with the process. I don’t mind tight spaces as long as I’m not being poked at! The actual event was completely painless, lasting about 30 minutes or so. Since I couldn’t move my arms, it helped to know that if my nose began to itch I could just use it as a window of opportunity to practice my mindfulness skills. In my opinion, that’s one of the great powers of mindfulness practice: You can do it any time, anywhere. At one point the chamber rattled vigorously, which was a new experience for me. I enjoyed the vibrations and let myself feel completely disoriented and jostled. I even dozed off. Usually, we associate putting ourselves in equipment like that with having a problem. It was heartening, even exciting to think I was participating in a study to further our understanding of the human mind and of meditation’s effect on it.
What the Meditation Research Showed:
After it was over Eileen showed me an MRI scan of my brain next to a non-meditator of the same age. She pointed out that my brain had less tissue loss than the other brain, making it younger in appearance, by comparison. Once she had reviewed my results in depth, she explained that her additional findings confirmed other detectable differences between meditators’ and non-meditators’ brains. While some of these differences are not visible on an MRI scan, they are measurable with advanced technology. One significant finding is that a meditator’s brain has more “gyrifications” or folds than that of a non-meditator and apparently the degree of gyrification correlates with the length of time a person has been practicing meditation. Researchers are still unclear about what specific ways increased gyrification improves functioning, but the study’s consistent results means there is room and undoubtedly support, for further exploration. In all, the UCLA team has published 4 articles about their findings, with more to come. It was exciting to know I had contributed to their information gathering in a useful way. My brain had delivered!
Even more exciting to me is the way this information could become a bridge to greater and greater public acceptance for the practice of secular meditation techniques, to improve health and well being. Anyone who has practiced meditation extensively doesn’t need an MRI to prove something has changed in their experience. The change is radical. However, from the outside it may be completely indiscernible. This is a facet of the paradox inherent in the mystical path. You can be a perfectly ordinary citizen of the world, while experiencing life in a wholly extraordinary way. Whether that experience informs your interactions with others is partly dependent on your depth of practice and partly dependent on their receptivity and their own experience. Some people look at Joshu Sasaki Roshi (a 105 year old Zen Master I’m fortunate to train with) and they see an old man. Some people come into contact with him and walk away physiologically altered. This is not to say the goal is to be physiologically altered. It isn’t. The goal is always and ultimately, insight into our true nature. Discovering ourselves to be the paradox itself: we are this form, this separate being walking around in the world and we are also not this form, because there truly is no separation. We are both and therefore neither, not either or.
Benefits of Meditation:
As meditators, we endeavor to know this experientially, moment by moment. This knowing, sometimes called “enlightenment,” is an ever-unfolding process. Not merely a static realization to be achieved, but a complete, all encompassing activity we are awakening to and participating in, more and more fully. How does our endeavoring benefit us? Well, apparently, it leads to more brain gyrifications! I believe this is a much more palatable response for most people than the seemingly amorphous and suspect words we frequently use to describe the indescribable, such as “liberation” or “inner peace” or the big daddy of them all: “freedom from suffering.” While these are all perfect descriptions, in my humble opinion, they probably won’t convince your average guy or gal on the street to sit still for 10 minutes a day.
However, point to a screen and show someone how their work can pay off, as well as the consequences of not doing the work. Now you’ve got yourself a customer. If I wasn’t sold already, seeing my brain on that screen was analogous to seeing the picture of healthy teeth and gums at my dentist’s office. I look forward to a time when daily meditation practice is as ubiquitous as flossing your teeth. I’m grateful to Eileen and to all who are working to detect the effects of meditation on the mind. Each step brings greater scientific validity to this life affirming practice, giving people ever more permission and incentive to hit the cushion!