Study senior author and Harvard Medical School Instructor Sara Lazar gives a lay of the land:
“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day... This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”
But what exactly happened in the study? Participants took about 27 minutes each day to meditate and practice mindfulness exercises. MRI scans at Massachusetts General Hospital showed major stimulation of gray matter density in a part of the brain called the hippocampus, an area heavily associated with compassion, self-reflection, self-awareness, and empathy.
Sue McGreevey, an employee at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells us that “participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. None of these changes were seen in the control group, indicating that they had not resulted merely from the passage of time.”
So, it appears that meditation quite literally weakens the part of our brains associated with stress and strengthens the parts related to introspection, emotion, and inter-human connection.