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Meditation on the brain

Meditation seems to harness the neuroplastic power of the brain. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to mould and form. Pathways we use a lot get stronger and bigger. Parts of the brain we don’t use, get smaller and weaker. In a meta-analysis of 21 neuroimaging studies, no less than eight brain regions were found to be consistently altered in individuals who meditate regularly. The areas mentioned are mainly in the fronto-limbic areas of the brain. Areas which correlate with claims of improved self-awareness, clarity of thought, empathy, compassion and improved mood.

The studies included in the meta-analysis and the conclusions it makes, do have problems. For one, the sample sizes are small. For another, it’s not so easy to directly plot vague structural changes to complex behaviours like compassion.

That said, the results of therapies using meditation as a cornerstone (like mindfulness-based cognitive therapy) in treating psychiatric illnesses, like chronic depression and anxiety, are very exciting.

The reported benefits of meditation are so appealing that the world’s early adopters, companies like Google and Nike, have initiated programmes to get all their employees meditating. Early studies have raised the hope for a rational thinking workforce with high job satisfaction and emotional resilience. Certainly, whenever a company tries initiatives to address their employees needs, the employees are happier for it.

Meditation won’t help you levitate, nor is it a highway to bliss. Like learning any new skill, it takes at least some level of application to reap the full benefits. In the striving to become healthier and happier, meditation really is all that.


Article by Dr Marcelle Stastny MBChB (PTA) FC Psych (UCT)

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