Practising simple meditation techniques such as concentrating on your breathing helps build denser grey matter in parts of the brain associated with learning and memory, controlling emotions and compassion.
Just eight weeks of meditation can produce structural changes large enough to be picked up by MRI scanners, American scientists have discovered.
Harvard neuroscientist Dr Sara Lazar said: ‘If you use a particular part of your brain, it’s going to grow because you are using it. It really is mental exercise. Basically, the idea is “use it or lose it”. It’s like building a muscle.’
In a study run by Dr Lazar and her colleagues, 16 volunteers had their brains scanned before and after an eight-week ‘mindfulness’ course.
Mindfulness is an increasingly popular form of meditation where the aim is to focus thoughts on the body’s physical sensations and detach yourself from the ‘chatter of the mind’.
The volunteers had weekly group sessions in which they did breathing exercises, gentle yoga and a ‘body scan’, focusing their thoughts on one part of the body at a time. They were also asked to practise for about half an hour each day.
MRI scans were taken before and after the sessions and compared with volunteers who had not taken part in the meditation course.
After eight weeks, those who went on the course had thicker grey matter in several parts of the brain. These included the left hippocampus, a small horseshoe-shaped structure in the central brain involved in memory, learning and emotional regulation.