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7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change The Brain

Alice G. Walton PhD in Biopsychology and Behavioral Neuroscience

The meditation-and-the-brain research has been rolling in steadily for a number of years now, with new
studies coming out just about every week to illustrate some new benefit of meditation. Or, rather, some
ancient benefit that is just now being confirmed with fMRI or EEG. The practice appears to have an
amazing variety of neurological benefits from changes in grey matter volume to reduced activity in the
me centers of the brain to enhanced connectivity between brain regions. Below are some of the most
exciting studies to come out in the last few years and show that meditation really does produce
measurable changes in our most important organ. Skeptics, of course, may ask what good are a few brain
changes if the psychological effects arent simultaneously being illustrated? Luckily, theres good evidence
for those as well, with studies reporting that meditation helps relieve our subjective levels of anxiety and
depression, and improve attention, concentration, and overall psychological well-being.

Meditation Helps Preserve the Aging Brain


Last week, a study from UCLA found that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-
meditators as they aged. Participants whod been meditating for an average of 20 years had more grey
matter volume throughout the brain although older meditators still had some volume loss compared to
younger meditators, it wasnt as pronounced as the non-meditators. We expected rather small and
distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating, said
study author Florian Kurth. Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation
that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain.

Meditation Reduces Activity in the Brains Me Center


One of the most interesting studies in the last few years, carried out at Yale University, found that
mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the default mode network (DMN), the brain
network responsible for mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts a.k.a., monkey mind. The DMN
is on or active when were not thinking about anything in particular, when our minds are just wandering
from thought to thought. Since mind-wandering is typically associated with being less happy, ruminating,
and worrying about the past and future, its the goal for many people to dial it down. Several studies have
shown that meditation, though its quieting effect on the DMN, appears to do just this. And even when the
mind does start to wander, because of the new connections that form, meditators are better at snapping
back out of it.
Its Effects Rival Antidepressants for Depression, Anxiety
A review study last year at Johns Hopkins looked at the relationship between mindfulness meditation and
its ability to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and pain. Researcher Madhav Goyal and his team
found that the effect size of meditation was moderate, at 0.3. If this sounds low, keep in mind that the
effect size for antidepressants is also 0.3, which makes the effect of meditation sound pretty good.
Meditation is, after all an active form of brain training. A lot of people have this idea that meditation
means sitting down and doing nothing, says Goyal. But thats not true. Meditation is an active training
of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways.
Meditation isnt a magic bullet for depression, as no treatment is, but its one of the tools that may help
manage symptoms.

Meditation May Lead to Volume Changes in Key Areas of the Brain


In 2011, Sara Lazar and her team at Harvard found that mindfulness meditation can actually change the
structure of the brain: Eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was found to increase
cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory, and in certain areas of the
brain that play roles in emotion regulation and self-referential processing. There were also decreases in
brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress and these changes
matched the participants self-reports of their stress levels, indicating that meditation not only changes
the brain, but it changes our subjective perception and feelings as well. In fact, a follow-up study by
Lazars team found that after meditation training, changes in brain areas linked to mood and arousal were
also linked to improvements in how participants said they felt i.e., their psychological well-being. So for
anyone who says that activated blobs in the brain dont necessarily mean anything, our subjective
experience improved mood and well-being does indeed seem to be shifted through meditation as well.

Just a Few Days of Training Improves Concentration and Attention


Having problems concentrating isnt just a kid thing it affects millions of grown-ups as well, with an
ADD diagnosis or not. Interestingly but not surprisingly, one of the central benefits of meditation is that it
improves attention and concentration: One recent study found that just a couple of weeks of meditation
training helped peoples focus and memory during the verbal reasoning section of the GRE. In fact, the
increase in score was equivalent to 16 percentile points, which is nothing to sneeze at. Since the strong
focus of attention (on an object, idea, or activity) is one of the central aims of meditation, its not so
surprising that meditation should help peoples cognitive skills on the job, too but its nice to have
science confirm it. And everyone can use a little extra assistance on standardized tests.
Meditation Reduces Anxiety and Social Anxiety
A lot of people start meditating for its benefits in stress reduction, and theres lots of good evidence to
support this rationale. Theres a whole newer sub-genre of meditation, mentioned earlier, called
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of
Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness (now available all over the country), that aims to reduce a persons
stress level, physically and mentally. Studies have shown its benefits in reducing anxiety, even years
after the initial 8-week course. Research has also shown that mindfulness meditation, in contrast to
attending to the breath only, can reduce anxiety and that these changes seem to be mediated through
the brain regions associated with those self-referential (me-centered) thoughts. Mindfulness meditation
has also been shown to help people with social anxiety disorder: a Stanford University team found that
MBSR brought about changes in brain regions involved in attention, as well as relief from symptoms of
social anxiety.

Meditation Can Help with Addiction


A growing number of studies has shown that, given its effects on the self-control regions of the brain,
meditation can be very effective in helping people recover from various types of addiction. One study, for
example, pitted mindfulness training against the American Lung Associations freedom from smoking
(FFS) program, and found that people who learned mindfulness were many times more likely to have quit
smoking by the end of the training, and at 17 weeks follow-up, than those in the conventional treatment.
This may be because meditation helps people decouple the state of craving from the act of smoking, so
the one doesnt always have to lead to the other, but rather you fully experience and ride out the wave of
craving, until it passes. Other research has found that mindfulness training, mindfulness-based cognitive
therapy (MBCT), and mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) can be helpful in treating other
forms of addiction.

Short Meditation Breaks Can Help Kids in School


For developing brains, meditation has as much as or perhaps even more promise than it has for adults.
Theres been increasing interest from educators and researchers in bringing meditation and yoga to
school kids, who are dealing with the usual stressors inside school, and oftentimes additional stress and
trauma outside school. Some schools have starting implementing meditation into their daily schedules,
and with good effect: One district in San Francisco started a twice daily meditation program in some of its
high-risk schools and saw suspensions decrease, and GPAs and attendance increase. Studies have
confirmed the cognitive and emotional benefits of meditation for schoolchildren, but more work will
probably need to be done before it gains more widespread acceptance.
How To Apply The Brain Science Of Resilience To The Classroom by Anya Kamentz (NPR)

Neuroscience isn't on many elementary school lesson plans. But this spring, a second grade class at
Fairmont Neighborhood School in the South Bronx is plunging in.

Sarah Wechsler, an instructional coach with wide eyes and a marathoner's energy, asks the students to
think about the development and progress that they've made already in their lives.

"You probably don't remember, but there was a time when you didn't know how to speak and you were
just like 'Wah wah wah blah blah blah, mama, mama!' " she tells the kids. "Our brain grows and changes
when you try hard things, when you learn new things."

The children offer their own ideas. "Brains are pink!"

"Your brain can get smarter. For example, if you need help with your work, your brain is there in your
head for you."
After watching a video with a cartoon brain, and doing an exercise where yarn stands in for connections
between neurons, they seem to have absorbed the main point of the lesson. "There is stuff in your brain
that if you take on a challenge and if you stick with it, it makes your brain smarter and it makes you
smarter," says one girl.

And Wechsler makes sure they also know the day's big vocabulary word.

"Neuroplasticity! Say it to the light! Say it to the floor! Tell it to your brain!"

The science of adversity


The children here aren't just learning this word for a little science enrichment. They're learning it because
their school, and the nonprofit Wechsler works with, called Turnaround for Children, are trying to put a
wave of science experiments into practice. The big mission: empower children growing up in poverty with
the research-based tools to transform their own developing brains. And that means, in part, giving them
the understanding that brains can indeed grow, change and heal.

In the part of the South Bronx where Fairmont Neighborhood School is located, 49 percent of kids are
growing up in single-mother households, according to census data. Nearly half of families earn $25,000 a
year or less; 17.5 percent make less than $10,000 a year.

That kind of poverty is inherently stressful, says Fairmont's principal, Scott Wolfson. "Some of our
students are sleeping in shelters, or not even in shelters but on the streets," he says. "They're thinking
about, 'Where is Mom right now? And where am I going to sleep tonight?' That's a huge thing for an 8-
year-old to carry."

Chronic stress and uncertainty, not to mention missed meals and restless nights, make it physically and
mentally difficult for children to concentrate or form trusting bonds with adults. They become
hypervigilant, prone to emotional meltdowns, with bodies thrown into fight-or-flight mode at the slightest
disturbance.

"There's a body of knowledge that is not a hypothesis, it's a fact," says Dr. Pamela Cantor, the founder of
Turnaround for Children. "Adversity alters how children develop as learners, and not in a good way."

Cantor first learned about the impact of trauma on the brain and body in medical school at Cornell in the
1980s. She worked in mental health in poor communities in the Bronx as part of her training, and saw
what she called a "symptom cluster."
"It began to be obvious to me that all the children that I was seeing were struggling with relationships,"
she says. "They were struggling with learning. They were struggling with trust, struggling with attention
span." And regardless of the details of their lives, she adds, these struggles had an underlying cause.

"Adversity has a biological impact on children's development through the mechanism of stress," she
explains. "Cortisol [the hormone released when a person is under stress] is toxic to the developing brain
and immune system. It impacts the development of the architecture of the brain so that children don't
grow up to have the attentional or behavioral control to be able to engage as learners."

She says it has taken far too long for the science she first learned three decades ago to make it into
schools.

So Cantor took things into her own hands by founding Turnaround for Children. The group has been
working at Fairmont since Wolfson took over as principal in 2014. And they are now expanding to 10
schools in New York City, Newark, N.J., and Washington, D.C., while also working on research and policy
to spread the word about the science of trauma and the science of resilience.

Drawing ACEs
Along with poverty itself, research shows that children in communities like these are more likely to have
"adverse childhood experiences," known as ACES for short. These include the death of a caregiver, the
incarceration of a family member, domestic violence, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, or addiction or
mental illness in someone close to the child. When a child has more than four "ACEs," the impact lasts for
decades. It can be seen not only in mental health, but in the incidence of chronic diseases and even cancer.

That safe and caring environment is what Principal Wolfson and his teachers are trying to create at
Fairmont, with Turnaround's help. Damon Cohen, who teaches second grade, is a middle-aged man with a
beatific smile. "We are in the inner city and it's edgy," he says. "I want them to be peaceful, social
creatures that know how to work and act and communicate."

Tameka Cassaberry has two girls at Fairmont and is the PTA president. Her older daughter, Kya Anpong,
now 10, started in the previous school in kindergarten. At Kya's end-of-kindergarten celebration, a
physical fight started among family members in the audience and spilled onto the stage, Cassaberry says.

"My family was there recording it, and it was out of control and it was embarrassing. People left, they
didn't get to see my daughter perform. She was afraid to."

Cassaberry pulled her daughter out and sent her to school across the district, a tough commute. Now
they're back at Fairmont. "With my older daughter, I've seen a crazy improvement," she says. "Her
reading is amazing."

Wolfson reached out to nonprofits like the Children's Aid Society and the Girl Scouts to provide after-
school programs and other services. One day when I visit, several children in each classroom are wearing
new glasses supplied by donation.

He turned to Turnaround to help his teaching staff. "Teachers needed a lot of professional development,"
he says. "They needed to be able to create physical environments that would be able to support children's
success" and "allow and encourage children to work together."

Turnaround spent its first year in the school helping teachers perfect order, habit and discipline. The
theory here is that chaotic schools a loud hallway, a messy class simply reproduce the stress that
children may bring from home. Rules should be the same across the school, so students know what to
expect. And students should be met with understanding and patience.
Many classes are team-taught, or have paraprofessional aides to help with behavior issues; nearly a third
of the students are in special education. When children act out, teachers give them a chance to calm
themselves and look for root causes.

"My son was having issues a couple years ago, so he was seeing a social worker" at the school, says Tracy
White, who has three boys at Fairmont. "She'll bring him to the office, have him color or take a walk so he
could get his anger down." Principal Wolfson says that with concerted effort, suspensions have fallen to
fewer than one a year.

Last year, Turnaround introduced daily mindfulness sessions after lunch, which had been a tough
transition time.

They use an app called Headspace. The classroom I visited fell perfectly silent for 10 minutes while the
British-accented voice of a former monk filled the room, narrating a guided relaxation exercise. Some
students stretched out on the rug and closed their eyes. Others pulled their hoods over their heads.
Students say Headspace "quiets down your mind," "makes me feel calm and is fun."

But it's more than that, says Cantor, "Meditation has roots in neuroscience." Regular mindfulness-based
stress reduction, she says, can actually shrink the amygdala, the "fear center" in the brain. Children who
practice calming themselves get better at it. They spend more time in a state of mind where they are open
to learning.

Believing in effort
This year, while continuing the mindfulness program, Turnaround has been applying another set of
research findings by training the whole school in growth mindset.

This is the term coined by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck to describe the belief that people can progress
and get better through effort, as opposed to "fixed mindset," the belief that ability is innate and
unchanging. Experiments show each of these mindsets can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In a group professional development session, Wechsler coaches teachers on giving feedback. Instead of
telling a child "good job" or "you're so smart" or "wrong answer," the teachers are encouraged to praise
students' efforts, ask them about another strategy they might try; or even talk directly about how hard
their brains are stretching and growing. Before the session, Wolfson speaks to the teachers about how he
is trying to adopt a growth mindset about the progress that needs to be made at Fairmont.

"Thinking of ourselves as learners means that we will have the ability to get better through practice,
through effort, and through possibly failures along the way," he tells me. "Growth mindset is helping, not
only my children, but also my teachers, to understand that."

Over the course of the spring, Wechsler comes into each classroom, from kindergarten to fifth grade, to
help teach growth mindset. It takes some time to schedule these, because the school also has to get ready
for an intensive quality review from the district, as well as spring testing.

The changes at Fairmont have yet to be reflected in dramatic improvement in academics. Last year, just 10
percent of students met state standards on the English Language Arts test, and just 8 percent in math.
That compares with 40 and 39 percent citywide.

Turnaround for Children is tracking its impact across schools in other ways. It has documented
improvements in classroom management and student engagement, using independent observers. The
group also has seen drops in suspensions and increased referrals to mental health services. And most
recently, it has found that students' theories of intelligence are changing. After the growth mindset
lessons, students are more likely to say they can get smarter if they try.
"I do worry about our test scores," says Wolfson. "Unfortunately, that's like the bottom line for us. But
without the social-emotional support we can't address the academics. We have to support the whole
child."