The New York Times and the Boston Globe have recently written about a forthcoming study on the brain changes associated with mindfulness meditation. This is great news and is not really new. Researches such as Britta Holzl, Sarah Lazar, and others have been conducting and publishing studies for years documenting the brain-changing effects of meditation.
To their credit, neuroscientists have been cautionary about their findings; after all the brain is the most complex thing in the known universe (just consider 100 billion neurons making up to 100,000 connections each, and each of these connections can be in any one of ten electrical states).
But consider this. The brain is plastic; its constantly changing. Every time you learn something new your brain changes in some way to represent this new knowledge (that is, one of those trillions upon trillions of connections). So it makes sense that meditation would change the brain. And we’ve known that it does for a long time, every since the brain could be measured through EEG. Go into meditation and your brain waves change.
However, what is surprising and important about the research coming out of the labs studying meditation is that these changes are not just state changes — they are enduring changes and can be seen in the very structure of the brain. The brain gets thicker in places, meaning neural connections are piling up. And these changes are showing up in some very interesting places. For example, the parts of the brain that deal with regulating our emotions, including knowing when to quiet fear.
Studies such as these are at the forefront of the mindfulness revolution. It’s one thing to note subjective changes in well-being, it’s quite another to demonstrate them in objective fashion. We’ve had anecdotes for thousands of years and neuroscientists are beginning to show us the inner workings of wisdom practices.