Friday, June 8, 2012

Meditation and improving my gray matter

Lately I have found great peace in saying my prayers in the morning on the way to work in my car. Granted I am not shutting my eyes (safety first people) or bending down and folding my hands, it is proving to be a great way to start my day.

I pray for everything! Nothing is off limits. I also thank God for all the things he has given me. It gives me a sense of peace unlike anything else.

In the January 28, 2011 edition of the New York Times reporter Sindya N. Bhanoo wrote an interesting story, "How Meditation May Change the Brain." Bhanoo's husband went on a 10 day silent meditation retreat. He came back a renewed person and wanted to continue meditating several hours per day. He was basically doing his own experience to see how constant meditation would effect his life.

What I've heard previously regarding meditation is that it can help lower peoples blood pressure and improve ones sense of self. 

Bhanoo was skeptical about the benefits of meditation for her husband. So she did some research on the topic herself.

"[Sic] scientists say that meditators like my husband may be benefiting from changes in their brains. The researchers report that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. The findings will appear in the Jan. 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.
M.R.I. brain scans taken before and after the participants’ meditation regimen found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress. A control group that did not practice meditation showed no such changes.
But how exactly did these study volunteers, all seeking stress reduction in their lives but new to the practice, meditate? So many people talk about meditating these days. Within four miles of our Bay Area home, there are at least six centers that offer some type of meditation class, and I often hear phrases like, “So how was your sit today?”
Britta Hölzel, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and the study’s lead author, said the participants practiced mindfulness meditation, a form of meditation that was introduced in the United States in the late 1970s. It traces its roots to the same ancient Buddhist techniques that my husband follows.
“The main idea is to use different objects to focus one’s attention, and it could be a focus on sensations of breathing, or emotions or thoughts, or observing any type of body sensations,” she said. “But it’s about bringing the mind back to the here and now, as opposed to letting the mind drift.”
Generally the meditators are seated upright on a chair or the floor and in silence, although sometimes there might be a guide leading a session, Dr. Hölzel said.
Of course, it’s important to remember that the human brain is complicated. Understanding what the increased density of gray matter really means is still, well, a gray area.
“The field is very, very young, and we don’t really know enough about it yet,” Dr. Hölzel said. “I would say these are still quite preliminary findings. We see that there is something there, but we have to replicate these findings and find out what they really mean.”
It has been hard to pinpoint the benefits of meditation, but a 2009 study suggests that meditation may reduce blood pressure in patients with coronary heart disease. And a 2007 study found that meditators have longer attention spans.
Previous studies have also shown that there are structural differences between the brains of meditators and those who don’t meditate, although this new study is the first to document changes in gray matter over time through meditation.
Ultimately, Dr. Hölzel said she and her colleagues would like to demonstrate how meditation results in definitive improvements in people’s lives.
“A lot of studies find that it increases well-being, improves quality of life, but it’s always hard to determine how you can objectively test that,” she said. “Relatively little is known about the brain and the psychological mechanisms about how this is being done.”
In a 2008 study published in the journal PloS One, researchers found that when meditators heard the sounds of people suffering, they had stronger activation levels in their temporal parietal junctures, a part of the brain tied to empathy, than people who did not meditate.
“They may be more willing to help when someone suffers, and act more compassionately,” Dr. Hölzel said.
Further study is needed, but that bodes well for me."

So as you can see there are benefits to meditation however you decided to do it.For now I am going to continue my chats with the big man in the car in the morning. However,  I am currently looking into becoming a certified yoga teacher part time while still keeping my full time job. I love how yoga takes meditation a step further and helps people relax and decompress. The only challenge is the cost and the time but hopefully I can figure out a way to do this.I would love the opportunity to help others feel better and learn how to take time for themselves every day. After all, we are worth it!

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