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A Deep Dive into the Impact of Yoga and Meditation on the Brain: Insights from Dr. Sara Lazar

Updated: Jul 29, 2023



For the past two decades, Dr. Sara Lazar, a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, has been deeply immersed in the study of the effects of yoga and meditation on brain structure and function. Her groundbreaking research has shed light on the potential of these ancient practices in enhancing mental health and well-being, offering intriguing insights into the neuroscience behind mindfulness.


In her initial studies, Lazar compared long-term meditators' brains to those of individuals who had never practiced meditation. Her findings revealed that seasoned meditators had a greater volume of grey matter in areas linked to sensory awareness, aligning with the tenets of meditation that emphasize heightened perception and consciousness.

However, the first study faced criticism. Skeptics pointed out that many long-term meditators also adhere to distinct lifestyle choices, including dietary habits, which could have potentially influenced the results. To address this concern, Lazar designed a follow-up study involving individuals who had never meditated before. Over an eight-week mindfulness training program, their brain changes were measured and compared to a control group who were just scanned eight weeks apart.


The results were compelling. Areas of the brain, including the hippocampus, known to be affected by trauma and depression, were found to increase in size after the eight-week meditation program. Another area, the temporal pile junction, associated with creativity, empathy, and compassion, also exhibited change. Furthermore, a connection was discovered between the practice of meditation and a reduction in the size of the amygdala, the brain's center for emotions such as fear and anger. Lazar pointed out that these findings provided biological backing for the stress reduction often reported by practitioners of meditation.


One of Lazar's most fascinating findings is related to aging. Research has established that the front half of the brain shrinks as we age. However, meditators seem to be more resistant to this trend, exhibiting preservation in this area of the brain. According to Lazar's study, participants were advised to practice meditation for 40 minutes a day, with the average time spent being around 30 minutes. A correlation was found between the duration of practice and the observed brain changes, similar to the correlation between exercise and physical health benefits.

While most brain research related to mindfulness has focused on various forms of Buddhist meditation, such as Vipassana, Insight Meditation, and Tibetan practices, other methods like Yoga and Tai Chi have also been studied, albeit to a lesser extent. According to Lazar, while all forms of meditation and mindfulness practices exert a general effect on overall health, specific benefits might differ based on the type of practice, similar to how different forms of exercise impact different muscle groups.


Lazar highlights that meditation's effects are not everlasting; if one stops practicing, the benefits could taper off. However, much like the muscle memory from riding a bike, certain effects of regular meditation might persist over time.


Her latest research project revolves around the anti-aging effects of meditation. Lazar is recruiting individuals aged between 65 to 80, who have never practiced meditation before, and plans to monitor their progress over two years and potentially up to a decade. This long-term study is expected to reveal more about the enduring impact of meditation on the aging brain.

In conclusion, Dr. Sara Lazar's extensive research offers promising evidence about the benefits of meditation on the brain, providing a compelling scientific perspective on this ancient practice's potential to improve mental health, reduce stress, and slow down the aging process.


Source


On March 27, 2018, Sara Lazar spoke at the Celebrating Delightful Moments and the Tech Vectors of Happiness event, the official launch of Joyance Partners. She shared the results of recent studies on how meditation changes the brain, showing a capacity for increased levels of empathy and creativity, and decreased levels of stress and depression. Dr. Lazar is an Associate Researcher in the Psychiatry Department at Massachusetts General Hospital and Assistant Professor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School. The focus of her research is to elucidate the neural mechanisms underlying the beneficial effects of yoga and meditation, both in clinical settings and in healthy individuals.





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