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Lions Roar : July 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2011 48 Germany, Britta Hölzel, who also found additional regions, hid- den more deeply within the brain, that had increased gray matter density in meditators. Gray matter is the part of the brain that holds most of the actual brain cells; its increased density may re- flect an increase in connectivity between the cells. Hölzel, who is a meditation practitioner as well as a researcher, now works with Lazar in Boston. The regions that Hölzel and Lazar identified are areas that are associated with the kinds of psychological and be- havioral changes reported by meditators for millennia. One of these regions allows us to shift perspective, an ability that supports a variety of skills and behaviors, including empathy (when we take the perspective of another) and the management of emotional upheavals (when we step out of our reactivity). This is completely in keeping with what actually happens during mindful- ness practice. The shift of perspective from automatic-pilot reactiv- ity to a more aware and observant witness is a central component of meditation training. Over and over, you practice shifting from a dreamy nonawareness into the vividness of the present moment. Lazar and Hölzel have also recently reported that the region of the brain most associated with emotional reactivity and fear—the amygdala—has decreased gray matter density in meditators who experience less stress. The most surprising find- ing was that both of these types of structural brain changes were seen after only eight weeks of practice in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. Hölzel says her neuroscience research has been extremely helpful in her own mindfulness practice. “It helps me to refine my practice, to be more aware of the processes that are going on while I’m practicing,” Hölzel says. “It also helps me to cultivate patience and acceptance. You might think that it should be easy to quiet your mind, but I know that neural systems take time to change, and wandering is built into the system. That knowledge allows me to accept how it is right now for me. It’s not my fault or my problem. It is simply the way that the brain is built and how the system functions.” The benefit of this information for practitioners is confirmed by Lazar. “The thing that surprised me most about this research,” Lazar says, “is how many senior practitioners and meditation teachers say that it motivates them to practice during the times when their meditation seems to be going nowhere.” She says medi- tators often tell her, “I used to think that I was wasting my time be- cause my mind was all over the place. This helps to keep me on the cushion because I remember how significant these changes are.” INCREASED ATTENTION Another area of recent research on the effects of meditation deals with the role of meditation in enhancing attentional performance. Whether our practice focuses on the breath, a sound, or a thought (for instance, a repeated phrase or a visualized image), attention is always central to meditation. That may seem ironic, because there is nothing like a long meditation session to demonstrate how difficult it is to control the attention. Countless distractions arise, seemingly out of nowhere, and hijack our awareness despite our best intentions. Especially if you are relatively new to medita- tion, you might think your practice is actually making you more distracted. Research, however, has shown that the distractions are actually less common, but that with practice you are more likely to notice them because your attention works better. You notice more of everything, including wandering and distractedness. Labora- tory testing can measure exactly how the mind becomes stronger with practice, and it demonstrates significant improvements over a relatively brief period of time. Amishi Jha is a pioneer in this area of investigation. She has applied sophisticated computer-based testing to measure atten- tional performance in meditators. Jha performed this type of test- ing on a group of medical and nursing students at the University Sensation flows from our body into brain regions associated with present-moment awareness (blue), often activating a connected set of brain regions associated with descriptions, narratives, and evaluations (red). Mindfulness training appears to weaken this body/narrative association. Image © Norman Farb. The most recent research suggests that a regular meditation practice can cause beneficial structural changes in the brain in as little as eight weeks. ➢ page 84