Do yoga and meditation change the brain?
Very often when I read articles about meditation or yoga I hear that these practices are somehow special because they cause changes in the brain. I thought that anything we do changes our brains- learning another language, studying, learning how to drive a car, everything! Are the changes caused by meditation somehow special and different than ordinary changes in brain?
We put Kamil's question to Naked Scientist Ginny Smith.
Ginny - Well that's a really interesting question. Now meditation has been used for thousands of years but just recently people have started doing scientific research into it and
you're right, when you say everything we do changes the brain but the changes don't happen immediately with just one time of doing something. What you need is to do something repeatedly and by repeating it then you'll build up the changes in the brain. So what meditation does is you have to practice it, you have to do it repeatedly and you get better at it. And while you're doing that there are changes going on in the brain. So using EEG studies which look at the brainwaves you produce, there have been lots of studies on mindfulness meditation which link lower frequency waves with meditation. And that suggests that when you're in this meditative state you're more relaxed but actually when they look at the waves more carefully you've also got waves linked with attention and awareness. So you're sort of in this interesting relaxed but aware state which is something that a lot of other practices don't put you into. And when you look at the brains of people who meditate regularly compared to people who don't, you actually see changes in the structure of the brain.
Chris - So can I just ask you then Ginny just for clarity, is that there already and therefore people who are good at meditation already have that ability or is this something that comes along with people who become practiced at the art of meditation?
Ginny - So that's a difficult question to answer as a lot of studies, because it's cheaper and easier, will take a group of meditators and a group of non-meditators. There have been some intervention studies that have seen some of these changes over an 8 week course of meditation so that does suggest that there are structural changes going on. We also know that meditation can improve medical conditions - depression, anxiety a lot of these kind of things can be improved with meditation and that suggests there must be something going on in the brain.
Now there are regions that are consistently altered and they're regions that are involved in things like memories and being aware of your own body as well as attention regulation and tuning out distractions. Well you can see you need to do those things when you are meditating - you're tuning into your kind of inner consciousness and tuning out what's going on around you. And we know that the more you practice something, whether it's a musical instrument or a sport, the better you get at it so the suggestion is that meditation is practicing being aware of your emotions, dealing with them, tuning out distractions, that is going to change your brain as everything does and make you better at those things.
Chris - Good advice there Ginny and this is definitely something I do because when I'm doing boring repetitive tasks; gardening, mowing the grass that kind of thing, I often use this as a really good opportunity to sort of mentally rehearse things I want to try and remember or run through facts that I want to get to the bottom of. And it's a really good have that almost isolation from everything else as you're doing something boring and repetitive and you can put yourself in a cognitive bubble and concentrate on doing something completely different.
Ginny - The way memory works is the more times you recall a memory the stronger the trace of that memory is in your brain and the more likely you are to remember it in the future so I think that's a very good idea.