Meditation benefits and virtues have long been praised and, more recently, documented in studies on Buddhist monks, who devote their entire lives to the discipline. But how effective can it really be for Western meditators, who practice on average just 30-40 minutes a day while balancing an entirely different set of external responsibilities and social stresses than their more rigid Eastern counterparts?
Is it possible to receive meditation benefits in such a short period of time?
A team of researchers from Yale, Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently checked it out. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the scientists scanned the brains of 35 test participants; 20 Western-style meditators and 15 control participants who had never practiced meditation or yoga. The former group was instructed to meditate, while the latter was asked to relax and let their minds wander.
The result? Brain regions associated with attention and sensory processing were denser in meditators (up to 4 to 8 thousandths of an inch thicker) than those of the control group. Moreover, the study demonstrated that regular meditation could reduce the effects of normal cognitive aging and perhaps even memory loss. “This was the first time anyone has looked at brain structure in meditation subjects”, said lead researcher Sara Lazar, Ph.D., a psychologist at Harvard Medical School. “Consistent with the reports of meditators, who claim that meditation affects all aspects of their lives, our findings suggest that cortical plasticity (structural changes of the brain) are not just limited to the amount of time spent actually sitting and meditating.”
You don’t have to shave your head and hole yourself up in an ashram. You’ll begin to feel the meditation benefits even if you can only practice for a few minutes a day. And the on-going practice delivers lasting mind-body health benefits.