Effects on mood enhancement & boosting immune systems:
People who are very distressed have more activity in the right prefrontal cortex of the brain. Right-side activation is seen most in people who are more anxious, depressed, or hyper-vigilant. People who are more content have more activity in the left prefrontal cortex. Davidson and colleagues from the University of Wisconsin, gathered data that showed that dramatic left prefrontal cortex activation was demonstrated in Tibetan monks with many years of experience in mindfulness.
Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn recruited a group of stressed-out workers from the field of biotechnology and taught half of them mindfulness meditation for 3 hours per week over an 8-week period, then compared them to a cohort who were not taught meditation. After an 8-week course on meditation the meditating group now has more left-sided activation than the non-meditators.
This group reported more mood improvement and felt more engaged in life. The researchers also discovered something vital when they measured the subjects’ responses to flu vaccines. The mindfulness group had developed a stronger immune system as their bodies had created more antibodies, corresponding with the left prefrontal cortical activation. Not only did they feel better their immune systems were strengthened (Williams & Penman, 2011).
Effects on Brain Structure:
As we get older our cerebral cortex thins and our brains actually lose grey matter. Dr. Sara Lazar a biological researcher from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston has been studying MRI’s of long-term Western meditators and non-meditators control subjects. One of her studies took scientific world by storm. LOng-term meditators (9 years 6 hours a week) had thicker cerebral cortexes in three areas: the anterior insula, sensory cortex, and prefrontal cortex. All areas pay attention to the breath and sensory stimuli. Prefrontal cortex is involved in working memory – holding thoughts in our head long enough to reflect on them, make decisions and problem-solving. The degree of thickening was proportional to the amount of time a person spent meditating.
Scientific research using brain imaging (fMRI) has shown that the insula becomes energised through meditation. This part of the brain connected with human connectedness as it helps to mediate empathy in a real and visceral way. Meditation not only helps to strengthen this area but also helps it to grow and expand.