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Feeling good? Mindfulness training can change your brain’s structure in 8 weeks

When we feel good about ourselves, the assumption may be that we are actually healthier. But is this actually true?
Do positive emotions really make a difference to health outcomes especially as we age?

How we approach ageing, stress, pain or illness can make a huge difference in determining the quality of the life we lead.
So does positive thinking help us to engage in healthier activities and enable us to remain proactive in keeping healthy?

Meditation has been shown in studies to produce ongoing positive improvement in cognition, memory and mood stabilisation.

The technique of mindfulness training teaches a person the ability to deal with a challenge or situation by removing any emotional baggage or judgment attached. This then enables the person to become more aware of their present sensations, feelings and state of mind, to look at a possible solutions and make a decision based on clear, focussed thinking.

This technique has been found to be so effective that the US army has used mindfulness training for new recruits who are facing deployment to Afghanistan or Iraq.

It had been previously shown that experienced meditators (compared to non meditators) showed thickening of the cerebral cortex in those areas of the brain associated with attention and emotional integration.But not that these changes had been produced by the meditation.

A new study has now shown a beautiful example of the brain’s plasticity at work.

A small group of 16 people engaged in an 8-week mindfulness meditation program to reduce stress. They underwent MRI brain scans two weeks before and at the end of the program.

The researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital found two things:
• the group reported feeling better as a result of the meditation,
• actual physical and measurable structural changes were shown in the associated brain areas not seen in the control group

This supports the idea that we can increase our actual well being through this technique.

Over the 8 weeks, the group met weekly for practice of mindfulness meditation and in addition spent 27 minutes every day practising mindfulness meditation exercises.
The results from the scans showed increased grey matter density in the hippocampus (the area of the brain associated with memory and learning) and in areas associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection.
Conversely in the amygdala, the area of the brain linked to anxiety and stress there was a corresponding decrease in grey matter.

So yes, our plastic brain can change using mindfulness meditation, to increase our actual well being through this technique.

This opens the door to look at whether this type of meditation could provide useful and effective treatment options for those living with other stress related disorders such as PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder)

Refs:

January 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging,
Sara Lazar, PhD, of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program

A. Ong Current Directions in Psychological Science journal of the Association for Psychological Science

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