Here’s some good news for meditators from Massachusetts General Hospital researchers: meditation seems to thicken the brain and might slow down age-related atrophy.
I’ve done a lot of meditation over the past thirty-six years. I can’t point to any conclusive evidence that all those hours spent trying to concentrate have brought me spiritual benefit, but it’s encouraging to learn that I might well be doing positive things to my physical brain.
The subjects in the Mass General study were practitioners of Buddhist insight meditation. Their focus was “mindfulness,” following the breath, sensations, and mental states in a non-judgmental manner. I’ve been a mantra meditator, where attention follows the repetition of a silently spoken word or words.
Hopefully mantra meditation brings the same benefits as insight meditation. I suspect that it does. Both practices are aimed at concentrating our normally scattered attention, bringing the focus of awareness back to the being who is aware.
If there really is something to the notion of mental energy, or chi/ki, perhaps meditation strengthens the brain by redirecting that vital force back within the psyche rather than letting it dribble away without.
A researcher said, "What is most fascinating to me is the suggestion that meditation practice can change anyone's gray matter. The study participants were people with jobs and families. They just meditated on average 40 minutes each day, you don't have to be a monk."
Results of this study were presented at a neuroscience conference attended by the Dalai Lama. It’s strange that 800 people signed an online petition asking that the invitation for him to speak be withdrawn.
I’ve read the Dalai Lama’s recently published book about the convergence of science and spirituality, “The Universe in a Single Atom.” He’s highly supportive of taking a scientific approach to religious practice, notwithstanding the fact that his Buddhist beliefs prevent him from wholeheartedly embracing scientific materialism (he’s more of an intelligent design guy than a evolutionist).
And the Dalai Lama could be right. The results of this brain scan study can be interpreted as supporting the notion that mental intentions have physical effects. Of course, a materialist would argue that physical activity in the brain (mindfulness) is causing physical effects in the brain (thickening of the cerebral cortex).
Well, I don’t care what the cause is. If meditating makes my brain thicker and less prone to atrophy, I’ll take these beneficial results and leave the “why’s” to neuroscientists.
I do have one question for the researchers, though: how much heavier is the thicker cerebral cortex?
It would be great if the answer is “five pounds.” That’s how much weight I’ve gained in the past few years. I’ll stop trying to lose it if my beefed-up (or tofued-up) brain is the cause of our bathroom scale pointing to 188 rather than 183.
(Thanks to Church of the Churchless readers Maggie and Robert for pointing out this study to me).