meditation & brain science

Meditation alters your grey matter, studies show

Move over cryptic crosswords and Sudoku, and make way for the ultimate mental workout. It’s called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR for short. Recent neuroscience research shows that novices using the method – developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the 1970s – can get results in just eight weeks.

Brain-changing results, that is.

A 2010 study found that non-meditators who had eight weeks of MBSR training were more likely than a control group to access the brain region that provides a bodily sense of the “here and now” as opposed to the region associated with worry.

In other research published in January, brain scans of MBSR participants with no previous meditation experience showed increased grey-matter density in regions involved in learning and memory, emotion regulation, self-awareness and perspective taking.

Scientists don’t know whether changes in grey-matter density influence a person’s thought patterns or actions, notes Britta Hölzel, lead author of the second study and a research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital. But she adds that decreased grey-matter concentration in the amygdala – the brain region that controls anxiety – was correlated to lower stress levels reported by participants. “This is actually a link [between] changes in the brain and behaviour.”

Previous studies suggest MBSR is a boon…

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for overall health. Research by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the University of Massachusetts’ Stress Reduction Clinic, established the MBSR program as an effective medical intervention for chronic pain and stress-related illnesses such as high blood pressure. Scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that graduates of an MBSR course produced more antibodies after flu shots than did non-mediators, which indicated a stronger immune response. And in a 2010 study, researchers at the University of Toronto concluded that mindful meditation was as effective as antidepressants in preventing relapse from clinical depression.

Mindfulness meditation helps to reduce stress by providing insight, says Lucinda Sykes, a Toronto physician who has led MBSR courses since 1997. “Sometimes we’re having a stress response to situations that is actually more the result of our habits of perception and attitude rather than the circumstances themselves,” she explains.

But it may be premature to draw conclusions about the health benefits of MBSR, according to a meta-analysis of meditation research commissioned by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the United States. The report found that the majority of meditation studies published up to the year 2005 had methodological shortcomings.

Compared to some forms of meditation, however, MBSR is a highly systematic practice. The program consists of eight weekly group sessions and a full-day retreat. Participants commit to about 45 minutes a day of exercises that include gentle yoga, sitting meditation and a “body scan,” which involves directing attention to bodily sensations. Exercises at home are led by experts via CDs and participants are encouraged to contact program leaders in between sessions for extra coaching.

Unlike transcendental meditation and various chanting practices, MBSR is not based solely on focusing the mind, says Zindel Segal, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto who developed Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy to treat depression. Instead, mindfulness emphasizes awareness of thoughts, feelings, sounds and sensations from an internal observer’s perspective, without an attempt to judge or alter the experience. “You’re watching the moment by moment ebb and flow of emotions,” Dr. Segal says. “You’re not running away from them but you’re also not getting overwhelmed by them.”

Because it’s a specific method that takes practice, experts discourage beginners from trying MBSR without any guidance. “Most people are going to find it’s easier to do this with a group,” says Dr. Sykes, adding that MBSR alumni often begin a solo practice once they get the hang of it.

Dr. Segal cautions against attempting to “cannibalize” the MBSR program by experimenting with only one of the activities. Although the body scan, yoga and sitting meditation exercises are all designed to cultivate mindfulness, doing just one robs people of the chance to discover which practice is best suited to them, he says.

Dr. Hölzel says it’s unclear which exercises contributed to structural changes found in brain scans of MBSR participants, since the program was tested as a whole. “We cannot tease apart the specific effects of each of the components,” she says.

After the eight-week course is over, the recommended daily dose of MBSR depends on participants’ reasons for entering the program, Dr. Sykes says. Maintaining a new level of insight may be possible in just 10 or 15 minutes a day. But if the goal is to influence a biological variable, such as blood pressure, she says, “it’s likely that you’re going to get the best results if you practice 20 minutes, twice a day.”

Dr. Segal suggests it’s better to do mindfulness exercises for a few minutes each day than to be a weekend meditation warrior. A daily practice becomes woven into the fabric of life, he explains, whereas sporadic mindfulness “is not that fully integrated.”

Mindfulness exercises are compatible with spiritual traditions including Christianity and Judaism, notes Dr. Sykes. Although it’s based on a form of Buddhist meditation called Vipassana, MBSR is a secular program designed for health-care settings, she says.

“People don’t need to become Buddhist to nonetheless benefit from this practice.”

Get with the program

Eight-week workshops modelled after the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School are held in cities across Canada:

Toronto: Meditation for Health, www.meditationforhealth.com

Vancouver: MBSR B.C., www.mbsrbc.ca

Ottawa: Ottawa Mindfulness, www.ottawamindfulness.ca

Montreal: Living Arts, www.living-arts.ca

For people who shy away from groups, the MBSR method is outlined in books that include CDs, such as Bob Stahl’s A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook and Zindel Segal’s The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness.

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Meditation and mindfulness may give your brain a boost

They are the simplest instructions in the world: Sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes, clear your mind and try to focus on the present moment. Yet I am confident that anyone who has tried meditation will agree with me that what seems so basic and easy on paper is often incredibly challenging in real life.

I’ve dabbled in mantras and mindfulness over the years but have never really been able to stick to a regular meditation practice. My mind always seems to wander from pressing concerns such as the grocery list to past blunders or lapses, then I get a backache or an itchy nose (or both) and start feeling bored, and eventually I end up so stressed out about de-stressing that I give up. But I keep coming back and trying again, every so often, because I honestly feel like a calmer, saner and more well-adjusted person when I meditate, even if it’s just for a few minutes in bed at the end of the day.

Now there’s even more reason to give it another go: New research from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston indicates that meditating regularly can actually change our brain structure for the better, and in just a few months.

The small study, published last month in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, tracked 16 people who took a course on mindfulness-based stress reduction – a type of meditation that, besides focusing your attention, includes guided relaxation exercises and easy stretching – and practiced for about 30 minutes a day. After eight weeks, MRI scans showed significant gray matter density growth in areas of the brain involved in…

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learning and memory, empathy and compassion, sense of self and emotional regulation, when compared with a control group. In addition, the researchers referred to an earlier study that found a decrease in gray matter in the amygdala, a region of the brain that affects fear and stress, which correlated with a change in self-reported stress levels.

“This is really, clearly, where we can see, for the first time, that when people say, ‘Oh, I feel better, I’m not as stressed when I meditate,’ they’re not just saying that – that there is a biological reason why they’re feeling less stress,” says senior author Sara Lazar, a psychology instructor at Harvard Medical School. She notes that these findings build on prior research that has found positive brain changes in long-term meditators: “But this is proof that it’s really meditation that’s making the difference,” as opposed to other potential factors such as diet or lifestyle, she says. “And it doesn’t take long to get there.”

None of this comes as a surprise to dedicated meditators or to doctors who regularly prescribe the practice.

“The study shows that meditation induces certain physiological brain changes that are consistent with many of the health benefits we see clinically,” says family medicine and chronic pain specialist Gary Kaplan, director of the Kaplan Center for Integrative Medicine in McLean, who recommends meditation as part of a treatment plan for every one of his patients. He reports that patients who follow this advice typically sleep better, have less pain, less anxiety and depression, and a better general sense of well-being. Kaplan adds that this admittedly anecdotal evidence comes on top of at least a decade’s worth of research showing that meditation can have a range of benefits such as reduced stress and blood pressure, migraine relief, an improved attention span and better immune function.

Given that meditation is readily accessible, cheap and portable and has few if any risks, there’s really no harm in giving it a try, says Kaplan, who suggests that getting a book or CD on the topic or taking a basic class is a good way to start.

He acknowledges that the practice is far from easy, at least in part because the mind is bound to wander. “We spend a whole bunch of time time-traveling – a lot of time in the future, worrying, and a lot in the past, dwelling on regrets and grief and loss – and we spend very little time in the present, focused on what’s going on at this moment,” he explains. “So allowing that chatter to quiet and becoming present in the moment, while being gentle with the thoughts that come in and out of the mind and any anxiety that’s there, that can be difficult.”

For those who are skeptical or who continue to struggle, Hugh Byrne, a senior teacher with the Insight Mediation Community of Washington, suggests some tips for getting going – and sticking with it:

Seek the right style. There are many forms of meditation, with different objectives, and it’s important to do some research and find the one that works best for you, whether it involves walking, chanting or deep-breathing exercises.

Practice, practice, practice. It’s essential to cultivate a regular, daily routine to get your mind in the habit of meditating, even if it’s just five or 10 minutes to start, says Byrne, who recommends slowly increasing that to 30 minutes or more every day.

Be mindful all day long. Meditation “isn’t just about bringing awareness to your experience while you’re sitting cross-legged with eyes closed,” says Byrne. “It’s also a practice that you can bring into the rest of your life: when you’re eating, sitting in a traffic jam, or relating to a partner, spouse, kids or colleagues at work.” He suggests finding a few minutes here and there to get centered.

Don’t be discouraged by a wandering mind. It’s totally normal. “The important thing is just to notice when you move into planning the future or ruminating on the past or daydreaming, just notice that and gently bring attention back to the present,” says Byrne. “And come back into the body, without judgment or criticism.”

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Can’t get the hang of meditation? Relax a minute, it’ll come to you

While medical science remains uncertain whether prayer has the power to heal, experts are pretty sure meditation works.

Yet another study released last month — this one in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging — reports that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in brain density in areas related to memory, sense of self, empathy and stress.

Exactly what those brain changes mean is not clear, but there also have been studies confirming that meditation can reduce blood pressure — in healthy people as well as in those with heart disease. And those who meditate report that at the very least it improves their sense of the quality of their lives.

Trouble is, meditation can be frustrating. And many of those who try it, quit.

We are all tangled up, I think, in a distinctly American idea of meditation. We believe there is a right way to do it, a method to be mastered and something to be achieved.

Meditation is, in fact, exactly the opposite of those things. It is not about doing. It is about being. Being still, being quiet and being with yourself for a few minutes each day.

There are a couple of videos on YouTube of yoga students in the resting pose at the end of a class, with hilarious voice-overs of what is going through their minds. Mashed potatoes. Chinese food. That dress on eBay. The guy who hasn’t texted back.

Anybody who has ever tried to meditate will relate immediately. You can drive home from work and upon arrival have absolutely no memory of the commute. But trying not to think about anything pretty much guarantees that you can’t…

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stop thinking about everything.And there are plenty of everyday distractions, too: the cat, the phone, the kids, the husband. All of them are reasons to get up before the rest of the house in order to meditate — another reason to quit.Meditation requires only a seat in a quiet spot, but there is lots of meditation help out there. There is guided meditation in which the voice on the CD or on your iPod talks you through. Concentrating on the instruction helps to shut down at least part of your mind.

And there is music that is perfect for mediation. It not only sets the mood, it helps you concentrate if you try to follow the notes or the voice. And there are sounds to help you meditate: the ocean, rainfall, a brook, birds. Saying prayers or the rosary can be a form of meditation. You can simply follow your breath, in and out.

Meditation has another side effect — besides a healthy resting heart rate or a lower blood pressure. It teaches something called mindfulness — the ability to be in the moment wherever we are, whatever we are doing. A kind of zone in which we are only aware of the person or the task in front of us.

Those people we love can certainly benefit from a little more of our mindfulness — our attention, our focus, our interest in what they are saying or doing. It is what they deserve from us.

There are shelves full of books on meditation written by experts. I am not one of them. And I have started and stopped meditating about as many times as I have started and stopped dieting, but with this difference: I have stopped beating myself up about what might seem like failure in any other endeavor.

In meditation, my yoga teachers tell me, there is no succeeding because there is no doing. There is just being.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

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Meditation appears to cause changes in brain’s gray matter

wildmind meditation news

A mindfulness meditation training program can trigger measurable changes in brain areas associated with awareness, empathy and sense of self within eight weeks, a new study has found.

Mindfulness meditation focuses on nonjudgmental awareness of one’s feelings, sensations and state of mind, which often results in greater peacefulness and relaxation, the researchers explained.

They used MRI to assess the brain structure of 16 volunteers two weeks before and after they took the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. The program included weekly meetings to practice mindfulness meditation and audio recordings for guided meditation practice. The participants were asked to keep track of how much time they practiced each day.

The researchers also analyzed MRI scans of a control group of people who did not meditate for comparison.

The meditation group participants spent an average of 27 minutes a day doing mindfulness meditation exercises. The MRI scans taken after the eight-week program revealed increased gray matter density in the hippocampus (important for learning and memory) and in structures associated with compassion and self-awareness.

The investigators also found that participant-reported reductions in stress were associated with decreased gray matter density in the amygdala, which plays a role in anxiety and stress.

None of these brain structure changes were seen in the control group.

“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life,” first author Britta Holzel, a research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston and Giessen University in Germany, said in an MGH news release.

“Other studies in different patient populations have shown that meditation can make significant improvements in a variety of symptoms, and we are now investigating the underlying mechanisms in the brain that facilitate this change.”

The study will be published in the Jan. 30 issue of the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.

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Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. Click here to find out about the many benefits of being a sponsor.

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How meditation may change the brain (New York Times)

Over the December holidays, my husband went on a 10-day silent meditation retreat. Not my idea of fun, but he came back rejuvenated and energetic.

He said the experience was so transformational that he has committed to meditating for two hours a day, once in the morning and once in the evening, until the end of March. He’s running an experiment to determine whether and how meditation actually improves the quality of his life.

I’ll admit I’m a skeptic.

But now, 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.

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“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.

For now, I’m more than happy to support my husband’s little experiment, despite the fact that he now rises at 5 a.m. and is exhausted by 10 at night.

An empathetic husband who takes out the trash and puts gas in the car because he knows I don’t like to — I’ll take that.

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Tibetan monks to take over Museum of Natural History this week for meditation

Make your thoughts as extinct as the dinosaurs on the fourth floor.

Twelve Tibetan monks will lead meditation sessions at the Museum of Natural History this week under the Hall of Ocean life’s giant blue whale and under the stars in the planetarium.

The enlightening exhibit – part of the museum’s ongoing show “Brain: the inside story“ – is intended to teach about Tibetan culture and highlight new research which shows the mental and physiological benefits of meditation.

But as places to find the peace and quiet necessary for meditation goes, the museum – let alone the city of New York – is far from ideal, said Khen Rinpoche, the monk leading the classes.

“It is difficult to find quiet in the museum,“ Rinpoche, the abbot of the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in India said. “You need deeper mindfulness to meditate here.“

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In that sense, although the meditation classes are open to absolute beginners, the museum poses great challenges, he said.

“You have to go deeper to get away from the distractions here – so this is a good place,“ he said.

Online registration is recommended for the free classes, which will be held before museum hours tomorrow at 8 a.m. and after closing Wednesday and Friday to provide maximum quietude.

“We’ll turn down some of the lights in here and turn off the ocean sounds,“ said Teddy Yoshikami, the museum’s manager of public programs. “We will also have a talk by one of the main researchers into recent studies of how the mind can really be changed through meditation.“

In addition to the meditation, the museum is presenting an exhibition of Tibetan Medical Paintings, which according to Rinpoche “show the physical side of Tibetan culture.“

During his session, Rinpoche will focus on “The Four Immeasurables – love, compassion, joy and equanimity.“

“The mind controls brain,“ he said. “If you learn how to control the mind, you can control the brain. And if you want to change the world, try to change your inner world instead of trying to change the outer world.“

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Mindful meditation may strengthen certain brain regions

New research suggests meditation may improve certain brain regions and help them with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress.

The Massachusetts General Hospital researchers said in a statement that changes in brain structure in people who practiced eight weeks of mindful meditation suggest the practice goes beyond simply making people feel better because they are spending time relaxing.

Meditation has long been recommended by practitioners as a way to achieve peacefulness, physical relaxation and cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day.

The researchers studied 16 participants two weeks before and after they took part in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program. In addition to questionnaires, the participants were also analyzed by MRI images to observe changes in certain regions of the brain.

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Compared with a control group, images of the brains of participants who reported spending an average of 27 minutes each day meditating showed increased gray matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self awareness, compassion and introspection.

The researchers said their findings show how malleable the brain is and that meditation can go a long way in improving personal well being.

A report on the study will be published in the Jan. 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.

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Mindfulness meditation training changes brain structure in 8 weeks

Participating in an 8-week mindfulness meditation program appears to make measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. In a study that will appear in the January 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, a team led by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers report the results of their study, the first to document meditation-produced changes over time in the brain’s grey matter.

“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” says Sara Lazar, PhD, of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program, the study’s senior author. “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”

Previous studies from Lazar’s group and others found structural differences between the brains of experienced mediation practitioners and individuals with no history of meditation, observing thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotional integration. But those investigations could not document that those differences were actually produced by meditation.

For the current study, MR images were take of the brain structure of 16 study participants two weeks before and after they took part in the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. In addition to weekly meetings that included practice of mindfulness meditation – which focuses on nonjudgmental awareness of sensations, feelings and state of mind – participants received audio recordings for guided meditation practice and were asked to keep track of how much time they practiced each day. A set of MR brain images were also taken of a control group of non-meditators over a similar time interval.

Meditation group participants reported spending an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness exercises, and their responses to a mindfulness questionnaire indicated significant improvements compared with pre-participation responses. The analysis of MR images, which focused on areas where meditation-associated differences were seen in earlier studies, found increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. Although no change was seen in a self-awareness-associated structure called the insula, which had been identified in earlier studies, the authors suggest that longer-term meditation practice might be needed to produce changes in that area. None of these changes were seen in the control group, indicating that they had not resulted merely from the passage of time.

“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.” says Britta Hölzel, PhD, first author of the paper and a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany. “Other studies in different patient populations have shown that meditation can make significant improvements in a variety of symptoms, and we are now investigating the underlying mechanisms in the brain that facilitate this change.”

Amishi Jha, PhD, a University of Miami neuroscientist who investigates mindfulness-training’s effects on individuals in high-stress situations, says, “These results shed light on the mechanisms of action of mindfulness-based training. They demonstrate that the first-person experience of stress can not only be reduced with an 8-week mindfulness training program but that this experiential change corresponds with structural changes in the amydala, a finding that opens doors to many possibilities for further research on MBSR’s potential to protect against stress-related disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.” Jha was not one of the study investigators.

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Can you build a better brain? Science explains what really works

This would be a whole lot easier—this quest for ways to improve our brain—if scientists understood the mechanisms of intelligence even half as well as they do the mechanisms of, say, muscular strength. If we had the neuronal version of how lifting weights increases strength (chemical and electrical signals increase the number of filament bundles inside muscle cells), we’d be good to go. For starters, we could dismiss claims for the brain versions of eight-second abs—claims that if we use this brain-training website or practice that form of meditation or eat blueberries or chew gum or have lots of friends, we will be smarter and more creative, able to figure out whether to do a Roth conversion, remember who gave us that fruitcake (the better to retaliate next year), and actually understand the NFL’s wild-card tiebreaker system.

But what neuroscientists don’t know about the mechanisms of cognition—about what is physically different between a dumb brain and a smart one and how to make the first more like the second—could fill volumes. Actually, it does. Whether you go neuro-slumming (Googling “brain training”) or keep to the high road (searching PubMed, the database of biomedical journals, for “cognitive enhancement”), you will find no dearth of advice. But it is rife with problems. Many of the suggestions come from observational studies, which take people who do X and ask, are they smarter (by some measure) than people who do not do X? Just because the answer is yes doesn’t mean X makes you smart. People who use their gym locker tend to be fitter than those who don’t, but it is not using a gym locker that raises your aerobic capacity. Knowing the mechanisms of exercise physiology averts that error. Not knowing the mechanism of cognitive enhancement makes us sitting ducks for dubious claims, since few studies claiming that X makes people smarter invoke any plausible mechanism by which that might happen. “There are lots of quick and dirty studies of cognitive enhancement that make the news, but the number of rigorous, well-designed studies that will stand the test of time is much smaller,” says neuroscientist Peter Snyder of Brown University Medical School. “We’re sort of in the Wild West.”

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A 2010 evaluation of purported ways to maintain or improve cognitive function, conducted for the National Institutes of Health, shows how many of the claims for cognitive enhancers are as sketchy as a Wild West poker player with a fifth ace up his sleeve. Vitamins B6, B12, and E; beta carotene; folic acid; and the trendy antioxidants called flavenoids are all busts, and the evidence for alcohol, omega-3s (the fatty acids in fish), or having a large social network is weak. The Mediterranean diet is associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline, find observational studies, but that hasn’t been confirmed in more rigorous, randomized controlled studies, and no one knows whether the benefit comes from what the diet includes (olive oil, fish, vegetables, wine) or what it excludes (red meat, refined sugars, dairy fat). Statins don’t help, and neither do estrogen or NSAIDs (aspirin, ibuprofen). Be skeptical of practices that promise to make you smarter by increasing blood flow to the brain—there is no evidence that’s the limiting factor in normal people. Yes, you can find individual studies concluding that one or another hype-heavy intervention helps your brain, but the conclusion of any single study is more likely to be wrong than right. (For one thing, scientists and journals prefer positive findings and bury negative studies.) Only by assessing all the evidence from all the studies, as the NIH evaluation did, can you get the true picture.

The quest for effective ways to boost cognitive capacity is not hopeless, however. The explosion in neuroscience is slowly revealing the mechanisms of cognition. “We have accumulated enough knowledge about the mechanisms and molecular underpinnings of cognitionat the synaptic and circuit levels to say something about which processes contribute,” says James Bibb of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, who organized a symposium on “cognitive enhancement strategies” at the 2010 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. Greater cognitive capacity comes from having more neurons or synapses, higher levels of neurogenesis (the creation of new neurons, especially in the memory-forming hippocampus), and increased production of compounds such as BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which stimulates the production of neurons and synapses, says neuroscientist Yaakov Stern of Columbia University. Both neurogenesis and synapse formation boost learning, memory, reasoning, and creativity. And in people who excel at particular tasks, Stern’s neuro-imaging studies show, brain circuits tend to be more efficient (using less energy even as cognitive demand increases), higher capacity, and more flexible.

One of the strongest findings in neuroplasticity, the science of how the brain changes its structure and function in response to input, is that attention is almost magical in its ability to physically alter the brain and enlarge functional circuits. In a classic experiment, scientists found that when monkeys repeatedly practiced fine-tactile perception, the relevant brain region expanded, just as it does when people learn Braille or the violin. Similarly, a region of the auditory cortex expands when we hear a particular tone over and over. (Yes, the spot that processes your ringtone is encroaching on next-door areas.) But when monkeys simultaneously touched something and listened to tones, only the brain region controlling the input they were trained to focus on expanded. In other words, identical input—tactile sensations and sounds—produces a different result, expanding a brain area or not, depending only on whether attention is being paid.

That might explain why skills we’re already good at don’t make us much smarter: we don’t pay much attention to them. In contrast, taking up a new, cognitively demanding activity—ballroom dancing, a foreign language—is more likely to boost processing speed, strengthen synapses, and expand or create functional networks.

By nailing down the underpinnings of cognition, neuroscientists can separate plausible brain boosters from dubious ones. With apologies to the political-correctness police, nicotine enhances attention—that key driver of neuroplasticity—and cognitive performance in both smokers and nonsmokers, scientists at the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported in a 2010 analysis of 41 double-blind, placebo-controlled studies. Nicotine, they found, has “significant positive effects” on fine motor skills, the accuracy of short-term memory, some forms of attention, and working memory, among other basic cognitive skills. The improvements “likely represent true performance enhancement” and “beneficial cognitive effects.” The reason is that nicotine binds to the brain receptors for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine that are central players in cortical circuits. (Caveat: smoking also increases your risk of dementia, so while cigarettes may boost your memory and attention now, you could pay for it later. To be determined: whether a nicotine patch delivers the benefits without the risks.

Neuroscience supports the cognitive benefits of stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin, too, at least in some people for some tasks. Both drugs (as well as caffeine) raise the brain levels of dopamine, the juice that produces motivation and the feeling of reward. On balance, finds psychologist Martha Farah of the University of Pennsylvania, studies show that both drugs enhance the recall of memorized words as well as working memory (the brain’s scratchpad, which plays a key role in fluid intelligence). They do not improve verbal fluency, reasoning, or abstract thought, however, nor provide much benefit to people with a gene variant that keeps dopamine activity high, Farah found in a recent study.

These limitations suggest two things. First, if you’re naturally awash in dopamine and are highly motivated to, say, deduce from its source code how a website was built, then increasing dopamine levels pharmacologically is unlikely to help. Farah found no difference between the performance of volunteers given Adderall and volunteers given a placebo on a battery of cognitive tasks, suggesting that you can get the same dopamine-boosting benefits of the drug by simply believing that you’ll do well, which itself releases dopamine. Second, the divide between the mental functions that drugs do and don’t improve suggests that psychological factors such as motivation and reward help with memory, but not higher-order processes such as abstract thought. The drugs “will help some people some of the time, but maybe not by a whole lot,” she concludes. Fun fact for anyone hoping for IQ in a pill: a recent survey of doctors finds they’re more comfortable prescribing sex drugs than smart drugs.

Knowing that Adderall and Ritalin work, when they do, by giving you motivation and a sense of reward from, say, solving a Sudoku puzzle implies that other ways to achieve those feelings will also boost mental performance. That’s probably the mechanism by which a whole slew of tricks work. Take, for instance, the “ancestor effect.” As a paper to be published in the European Journal of Social Psychology reports, “thinking about our genetic origin”—how Grandpa survived the Depression, how Great-Grandma eluded the Cossacks, et al.— “enhances intellectual performance.” The mechanism responsible for that is an increase in confidence and motivation—Adderall without the prescription. Along the same lines, a positive mood—even the kind that comes from watching “Sneezing Panda” on YouTube—can enhance creative problem-solving, finds a new paper in Psychological Science. In this case, reducing stress and the resulting cortisol, which attacks the myelin sheath that coats neurons and thus impairs signal transmission, allows underlying abilities to reach their full potential. Finally, being told that you belong to a group that does very well on a test tends to let you do better than if you’re told you belong to a group that does poorly; the latter floods you with cortisol, while the former gives you the wherewithal and dopamine surge to keep plugging away.

But there’s a difference between reaching your natural potential by removing impediments such as stress and actually raising that potential. The latter requires tapping into one of the best-established phenomena in neuroscience—namely, that the more you use a circuit, the stronger it gets. As a result, a skill you focus and train on improves, and even commandeers more neuronal real estate, with corresponding improvements in performance. London cabdrivers who memorize that city’s insanely confusing streets (25,000 of them) have a larger posterior hippocampus, the region that files spatial memories, than the average Londoner, neuroscientist Eleanor Maguire of University College London discovered in 2003. Conversely, if we offload our navigational ability onto GPS, we’ll lose it.

The rule that “neurons that fire together, wire together” suggests that cognitive training should boost mental prowess. Studies are finding just that, but with a crucial caveat. Training your memory, reasoning, or speed of processing improves that skill, found a large government-sponsored study called Active. Unfortunately, there is no transfer: improving processing speed does not improve memory, and improving memory does not improve reasoning. Similarly, doing crossword puzzles will improve your ability to do crosswords. “The research so far suggests that cognitive training benefits only the task used in training and does not generalize to other tasks,” says Columbia’s Stern.

The holy grail of brain training is something that does transfer, and here there are three good candidates. The first is physical exercise. Simple aerobic exercise, such as walking 45 minutes a day three times a week, improves episodic memory and executive-control functions by about 20 percent, finds Art Kramer of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His studies have mostly been done in older adults, so it’s possible the results apply only to people whose brain physiology has begun to deteriorate—except that that happens starting in our 20s. Exercise gooses the creation of new neurons in the region of the hippocampus that files away experiences and new knowledge. It also stimulates the production of neuron fertilizers such as BDNF, as well as of the neurotransmitters that carry brain signals, and of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex. Exercise stimulates the production of new synapses, the connections that constitute functional circuits and whose capacity and efficiency underlie superior intelligence. Kramer finds that a year of exercise can give a 70-year-old the connectivity of a 30-year-old, improving memory, planning, dealing with ambiguity, and multitasking. “You can think of fitness training as changing the molecular and cellular building blocks that underlie many cognitive skills,” he says. “It thus provides more generalizable benefits than specifically training memory or decision making.”

The second form of overall mental training is meditation, which can increase the thickness of regions that control attention and process sensory signals from the outside world. In a program that neuroscientist Amishi Jha of the University of Miami calls mindfulness-based mind-fitness training, participants build concentration by focusing on one object, such as a particular body sensation. The training, she says, has shown success in enhancing mental agility and attention “by changing brain structure and function so that brain processes are more efficient,” the quality associated with higher intelligence.

Finally, some videogames might improve general mental agility. Stern has trained older adults to play a complex computer-based action game called Space Fortress, which requires players to shoot missiles and destroy the fortress while protecting their spaceship against missiles and mines. “It requires motor control, visual search, working memory, long-term memory, and decision making,” he says. It also requires that elixir of neuroplasticity: attention, specifically the ability to control and switch attention among different tasks. “People get better on tests of memory, motor speed, visual-spatial skills, and tasks requiring cognitive flexibility,” says Stern. Kramer, too, finds that the strategy-heavy videogame Rise of Nations improves executive-control functions such as task switching, working memory, visual short-term memory, and reasoning in older adults.

Few games or training programs have been tested to this extent, and many of those that have been come up short. Those with increasing levels of difficulty and intense demands on attentional capacity—focus as well as switching—probably do the most good … as does taking a brisk walk in between levels.

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Scans show more brain activity when people meditate

People who pray, meditate and perform religious rituals show considerably more activity in their brain’s frontal lobe during these activities than when the brain is at rest, a scientist has found.

Andrew Newberg from the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College in the US is a proponent of neurotheology, which tries to study the relationship between the brain and religion.

Newberg studied the brain activity of experienced Tibetan Buddhists before and during meditation, reports the Daily Mail.

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He found an increase of activity in the meditators’ frontal lobe, responsible for focusing attention and concentration, during meditation. He attributes the change to the effects of their religious experience, a statement of Thomas Jefferson University said.

However, it is just as likely that the scans are another example of what happens when people meditate, rather than any religious link.

Neurotheology has come under fierce attack from other academics in the past who say it is not rigorous enough in its studies and that theology and science should not be linked in this way.

It is not the first time that brain activity and meditation have been studied.

Last month, a study at the University of Oregon found that people who meditate can strengthen their brain. Meditation novices took part in brain-training meditation sessions for half an hour on weekdays for a month.

Another group received the same amount of tuition – 11 hours in basic relaxation techniques.

Brain scans revealed the brain connections of those in the meditation group – but not the other group – started to strengthen after six hours’ practice. Differences were clear after 11 hours.

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