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.
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.
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).