How Meditation Slows Down Aging of the Brain

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.

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.

3 Regions of the Brain

1. Insula – 2. Frontal regions – 3. Somatosensory cortex

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.

Aging Brain Thickness Study

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 Hanson PhDRick 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 website and sponsors the Skillful Means wiki (a growing encyclopedia of psychological and spiritual methods).


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Meditation in San Francisco School Improves Learning Since 2005 the David Lynch Foundation has shared Transcendental Meditation with our most stressed populations. If you are inspired by this video please make a donation using the Donate button on the right. The David Lynch Foundation runs entirely on donations and there is a long list of schools and organizations eager to participate. We appreciate your support. Change begins within!

For information on how to learn the Transcendental Meditation technique please visit

James Dierke: My name is James Dierke and I am the principal of Visitacion Valley Middle School. When I arrived at this school thirteen years ago it had the highest absentee rate, the highest suspension rate, the highest teacher turnover rate, the lowest academic achievement rate. We had the second highest crime rate in San Francisco and about 85% of the kids were from homes of poverty. The kids didn't play outside they didn't go anywhere on the weekends. They were kind of prisoners of their own environment.

Five years ago Principal Dierke tried something new to break the predictive power of the demographics of his school.

James Dierke: I had heard about Transcendental Meditation early in my career as a special educator. I had seen it in operation on a one to one basis.

Transcendental Meditation (TM) is a simple and effective technique proven to reduce stress and improve health and well-being.

James Dierke: When I first went downtown to tell people that this is what we wanted to do, they looked at me funny and said, "Oh, really?" I said, "We really have nothing to lose here by trying this."

Carlos Garcia, Superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District: We've tried everything else we've spent a ton of money for Title 1 programs, different programs on trying to have an impact on student achievement.

James Dierke: I said I will have the support of the parents. My faculty voted 99 to 1 to do it.

Carlos Garcia: Let's see if it works.

Teacher: Alright class, we're ready. Quiet Time starts now.

Principal Dierke and his staff were instructed in meditation. They implemented the Quiet Time program in their 6th and 7th grade classes. Twice a day students practiced meditation for 15 minutes.

James Dierke: The idea of kids having a little time out from everything lets them erase everything on their frontal lobe. The brain is much calmer so naturally you're able to absorb a lot more.

Jan Link, Supervisor - Research Office at the Unified School District: That 15 minutes twice a day is enough to make the difference where when you actually have a 40 minute class there's quiet, there's focused concentration and there's joyful learning.

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Gita says:

There is Brahmakumaris meditation…that relaxes the mind…nurtures a healthy balance between inner and outer worlds…restore balance through silence… also there is study of spiritual values.

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