In a study published in 2011, a team led by Massachusetts General Hospital researchers reported that an eight-week program in mindfulness meditation was able to make measurable changes in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress. The study’s senior author, Sara Lazar, PhD, is quoted as saying “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.”
In this study, Lazar and her team took MRIs of the brain structure of 16 participants in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction training, two weeks before and two weeks after their participation in the program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness.
Besides weekly meetings that included mindfulness meditation, participants meditated for an average of 27 minutes each day during the program, guided by audio recordings. Participants’ self-report of progress indicated they experienced measurable improvement in their capacity for mindful presence in daily life, and reduction in their levels of reported stress.
Analysis of the MRIs showed increased brain densities in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, as well as structures in the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion, and stress. No changes were seen in the control group.
“Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density”, Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, Volume 191, Issue 1, pp 36-43, January 30, 2011.