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People in myriad cultures for thousands of years have turned to meditation for spiritual awakening and well-being in life – and if it didn’t work, they probably wouldn’t have!

By using clinical research practices to evaluate the benefits of meditation we can see clearly how well it works to alleviate symptoms of disease, prevent disease onset and improve overall quality of life, but although we know that it works pretty well – exactly how and why it works its magic remains more mysterious.

Now, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Bender Institute of Neuroimaging in Germany  say they are starting to unravel that mystery with the results of an experiment that show that just 8 weeks of meditation practice result in measurable changes in grey matter density in the areas of the brain responsible for emotion control, memory and self perspective and self processing.

The Experiment

Researchers did MRI scans on 16 participants of an 8 week mindfulness meditation course, scanning each participant once, 2 weeks prior to the start of the 8 week course, and once more 2 weeks following the end of the 8 week course. 17 control subjects who did not participate in the meditation course also received MRI scans at similar intervals.

In addition to checking for structural changes in the brain, the study participants and control subjects completed questionnaires throughout the study period which evaluated for improvements in aspects of mindfulness, such as being non judgmental about inner experiences, reacting less to inner experiences, acting with an awareness of why you are acting, observing your environment and self describing your environment.

The 8 week meditation course consisted of weekly meditation training sessions. Each participant was encouraged to practice at home and was given audio CDs to help guide home meditation sessions.

The Results

8 weeks of meditation resulted in improvements on 3 of the 5 measures of mindfulness. Control subjects who did received no meditation training showed no improvements.

MRI scans revealed that, compared to control subjects, those who received the meditation training showed measurable differences in grey matter density in the left hippocampus, the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum.


The researchers suggest that the brain changes visible after only 8 weeks of meditation training may help to explain some of the mental health benefits of mindfulness meditation.1

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Page last updated Sep 28, 2011

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