Online brain training games have grown incredibly popular in recent years, as baby boomers look for ways to stay mentally sharp. But many scientists have doubts about the effectiveness of these profitable programs. Fortunately, according to a Harvard study, you can boost your brain density without spending a dime on another computer game with questionable benefits.
Just start practicing “mindfulness meditation” for a few minutes a day.
For this study conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard neuroscientists recruited 16 healthy men and women with no experience meditating. The participants took an eight-week training course on meditation at the hospital. And they reported practicing meditation on their own for an average of 27 minutes daily during those eight weeks.
The researchers took before-and-after MRI scans of the participants’ brains to see if any changes occurred following meditation. They also compared the results of their brain scans to a control group of men and women who didn’t take the course or practice daily meditation.
Well–the results shocked even the experienced Harvard neuroscientists who designed it.
They found that participants who practiced daily meditation experienced significant structural changes to the brain…in just a few weeks.
First, they experienced major increases in gray matter density in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with compassion, introspection and self-awareness.
This finding has many implications…
You see, when you do something that increases gray matter “density,” it basically means you increase the neurons, or cells, in your brain. So it makes me think of all the potential to use meditation as a non-drug treatment for disorders like dementia. It could help create more brain cells to replace those that may be lost.
Second, researchers found decreased gray matter density in the amygdala, which plays an important role in anxiety and stress. Not surprisingly, the men and women who practiced daily meditation also reported feeling less stressed.
The control group of non-meditators didn’t exhibit any of these brain changes.
Of course, as I often report, the practice of meditation brings a sense of peacefulness and relaxation. People who practice it also experience cognitive benefits and psychological improvements that persist throughout the day.
But, clearly, it does so much more.
Dr. Sara Lazar, my colleague at Harvard Medical School and MGH, and senior author of the study said, “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”
Previous studies from Lazar’s group and others found structural differences between the brains of experienced meditators compared to people with no meditation experience. For example, meditators have a thicker cerebral cortex in the areas of the brain associated with attention and emotional integration.
However, those prior studies weren’t designed to demonstrate that meditation directly caused the improvements in the brain. So–in the mainstream medical circles, those studies don’t count.
Well, this time around, the study does count. And it showed us just how simple it is to change brain structure in a very short amount of time. Apparently, we can quite literally “change our minds.” And these changes can increase feelings of well-being and improve your quality of life. All it takes is a little meditation.
You can read a full report about meditation’s remarkable ability to preserve and improve brain matter in the June 2015 issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter. If you’re not a subscriber, now is the perfect time to get started so you will get this important report.