Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson PhD explains how mindfulness meditation can strengthen our brains and has particular relevance as people age. This presentation was recorded at the Greater Good Science Center in UC Berkeley as part of the Science of a Meaningful Life Series.
How many of you meditate at least once a year? Once a month? This is about you in a lot of ways. People who do some kind of meditative practice, sort of routinely, pretty much much of the time—10, 20, 30 minutes a day, 45 in a good day, in other words, people like me, real world—they actually have measurably thicker brains in certain key regions.
1. Insula – 2. Frontal regions – 3. Somatosensory cortex
So the number one region up here is called the insula. It’s a part of the brain, and again there are two of them, that is involved in what is called interoception– tuning into the internal state of your body as well as your deep feelings. No wonder. They’re tuning into themselves, probably a lot of what you’re doing is practicing mindfulness of breathing, they’re getting in touch, really present with what’s going on. No wonder. They’re using, and therefore they’re building, much like a muscle by analogy, literally they’re using it so they build it, the insula.
The second region is the frontal regions of the prefrontal cortex, the frontal areas, that are involved again in controlling attention. No surprise here as well. They’re using attention so they’re getting more control over it, and they’re strengthening its neural basis.
The third region up at the top is somatosensory cortex, that’s the part that basically they’re tuning into the body. It’s less relevant for our purposes.
The point is that people who routinely practice something, in this particular case mindfulness meditation, build up the neural substrates that are its basis.
Normally we lose about 10,000 brain cells a day. That may sound horrible but we were born with 1.1 trillion. And we also have several thousand a day born inside mainly the hippocampus, actually, in what is called neurogenesis. So losing 10,000 a day isn’t that big a deal, but the bottom line is that a typical 80-year old would have lost about four percent of brain mass. It’s called cortical thinning with aging. It’s a normal process.
So in this study there was a comparison between the meditators and non-meditators. The meditators are the blue circles, the non-meditators are the red squares, age matched and so forth. This was not a longitudinal study, it was a cohort study with some good statistical controls.
The people who are the red squares, the controls, experience normal cortical thinning in these three regions of interest. Whereas the people who routinely meditated and “worked” that muscle, did not experience cortical thinning in that region. They’re the blue circles with the line straight across. That has a lot of implications for an aging population.
I had a birthday yesterday, and so it’s on my mind and I see a little more grey hair every year in the mirror. So anyway, use it or lose it, right? It applies to the brain as well as to other aspects of life.
That takes us to a really important point that for me is a major takeaway in this territory–that our experience really matters. It doesn’t just matter moment to moment in terms of subjective well-being–you know how it feels to be “me”. But it also really matters in the lasting residues it leaves behind, woven into our very being.
About Rick Hanson
Rick Hason, PhD, is a neuropsychologist and has written and taught about the essential inner skills of personal well-being, psychological growth, and contemplative practice – as well as about relationships, family life, and raising children.
After fulfilling the course requirements for a Masters in developmental psychology at San Francisco State University, Dr. Hanson received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the Wright Institute in 1991. His clinical practice includes adults, couples, families, and children, as well as psychological assessments of children and adults related to temperament, school performance, and educational and vocational planning. He has worked as a school psychologist for several independent schools, and has given many talks to meetings of parents or child development specialists. For many years, he served on the Board of FamilyWorks, a family resource agency in Marin County, California, and chaired it for two years. Dr. Hason currently serves as a Trustee of Saybrook University.
Dr. Hanson became increasingly interested in the historically unprecedented meeting of modern brain science and ancient contemplative practices. With Rick Mendius, M.D., he founded the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. The Institute publishes the monthly Wise Brain Bulletin, hosts the www.WiseBrain.org website and sponsors the Skillful Means wiki (a growing encyclopedia of psychological and spiritual methods).
Rick Hanson’s audio programs:
The Enlightened Brain
The Neuroscience of Awakening
Meditation meets neuroscience—practical tools to reshape your brain for awakening. We are inspired by the living example of great teachers, who have both penetrating insight and a loving heart. “With modern neuroscience, we’re now beginning to understand the brain processes that support these wonderful qualities of mind,” explains Dr. Rick Hanson. With The Enlightened Brain, this pioneering neuropsychologist explores how you can activate these same processes inside your own brain to accelerate your own transformation.
Stress-Proof Your Brain
Meditations to Rewire Neural Pathways for Stress Relief and Unconditional Happiness
To help you adapt your nervous system to the challenges of today’s world, neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson presents Stress-Proof Your Brain. Join him to learn research-based techniques and meditations that will literally reshape your brain to make you more resilient, confident, and peaceful.
Awaken Your Brain
Teachings and Practices from the Author of Buddha’s Brain
With Awaken Your Brain, Dr. Rick Hanson invites you on a six-part journey to learn how to activate and strengthen the neural circuits that promote confidence, positive moods, resilience, loving-kindness, and inner peace.
Rick Hanson’s books:
Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom
With the new breakthroughs in neuroscience, combined with the insights from thousands of years of contemplative practice, you, too, can shape your own brain for greater happiness, love, and wisdom. Buddha’s Brain joins the forces of modern science with ancient teachings to show readers how to have greater emotional balance in turbulent times, as well as healthier relationships, more effective actions, and a deeper religious or spiritual practice.
Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time
This book offers simple brain-training practices you can do every day to protect against stress, lift your mood, and find greater emotional resilience. Just One Thing is a treasure chest of over fifty practices created specifically to deepen your sense of well-being and unconditional happiness.