Mold Your Brain with Meditation: Mindfulness and Brain Anatomy

What Mindfulness trials and MRI scans reveal

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Not only can meditation help you feel better, but it can also transform the physical structure of your brain. Professor Vishton describes one major study that used fMRI scans to reach this conclusion and the implications for our mental and emotional flourishing.

Mom and daughter meditating in living room couch
During regularly practiced meditation, the brain experiences significant activity that can be measured through before-and-after fMRI scans; the concentration of gray matter increases in several areas as neurons are produced and retained over time. Photo by fizkes

Meditation and Brain Anatomy

With advancements in neuroscience research, we can now study the direct impact of meditation on the brain. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers can not only measure brain activity, but also perform precise scans of your brain anatomy before and after meditation.

Observing brain activity helps us to measure the immediate effects of meditation on the brain. If you meditate on a regular basis for some period of weeks or months, though, does it change the anatomical structure of your brain? MRI brain scans indicate that it does.

One study comes from a team led by Britta Hölzel of Harvard Medical School. She and her colleagues recruited a group of 17 people who had signed up for a meditation course intended to help with stress reduction. 

Additionally, they recruited 17 other people who didn’t participate in the course. These control participants were drawn from people who wanted to take the course but couldn’t because all the seats were full.

Before the course started, all of the participants—the 17 meditation students and the 17 control participants—visited an MRI facility. The researchers there conducted a high-resolution scan of each of the participant’s brain anatomy. The meditation participants then took their course.

The course consisted of eight meetings, two-and-a-half hours each, one meeting per week. In the sixth week of the course, the students met for a longer six-and-a-half hour session. 

Mindfulness Training

The program involved mindfulness training, where you engage in awareness of the experiences that you’re having at that particular moment. As you sit quietly, relaxing with your eyes closed, you engage in a sequential scan of your own body. 

Often, when you’re first learning this, you might listen to an audio recording of an expert guiding your thought process. The teacher might first ask you to focus on your toes: to feel them, be aware of them, and relax them. 

Next you move onto your feet, your lower legs, and so on. The body scan works through the whole body and then completes by encouraging you to be aware of your whole body at once.

Over this eight-week intervention, the participants reported engaging in about 23 hours of total meditation practice. This averages out to a little less than 30 minutes per day on average. 

Impacts on Brain Structure

After this period, the researchers found increases in the gray matter concentration in several areas of the brain. If your brain has more gray matter, it has more neurons. This meditation practice caused the brains of the meditators to produce more neurons and retain more of them over time. 

Additionally, the meditation showed a clear effect on the left hippocampus. The posterior cingulate cortex, the left temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum also showed these effects.

The hippocampus plays a role in a wide range of functions, ranging from memory to reasoning about how to navigate through the world. The hippocampus is a highly connected structure that seems to regulate a wide variety of processes throughout the brain. There’s an entire scientific journal devoted to the study of how the hippocampus functions, appropriately called Hippocampus.

The posterior cingulate cortex is another highly connected structure. It’s often thought of as a part of the brain’s default network—the area of the brain activated regardless of what you’re doing, even when you’re doing nothing at all. 

It’s associated with emotion regulation and the control of general arousal. This is one of those central control structures that seems to be involved in regulating a large collection of brain circuits.

The left temporo-parietal junction is heavily involved in our ability to parse and understand both written and spoken language. The better this region functions, the better you’re able to reason about the things that you read and hear. 

The cerebellum is a part of the brain located just above the spinal cord, underneath the cortex near the very back of the skull. This region is smaller than the cortex, but it contains about three-and-a-half times as many neurons. This is a densely packed, highly interconnected region of the brain that plays important roles when it comes to controlling bodily movements.

Overall, this study suggests that engaging in meditation practice on a regular basis, over the course of even a few weeks, can change your brain anatomy and boost the number of neurons in the brain. Participants rated their stress levels as significantly lower than the ratings from the non-participant control group after the intervention. Even if you aren’t experiencing issues with stress, meditation seems to function well for brain maintenance purposes.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.