Jun
25
2008

Meditation promises brain-enlargement, hat-recycling disaster.

She's actually 60 years old: And look at her huge, weird head.
She's actually 60 years old: And look at her huge, weird head.Courtesy DistortedSmile
The more I learn about meditation, the more intrigued I am by it. I mean, meditation has it all: it can allow you to freeze yourself in a block of ice, walk across a bed of hot coals, and look like you’re asleep without actually being asleep (this is all according to what I learned from television, anyway).

Now there’s a new item, to add to the list of meditation-induced superhuman qualities: a huge, swollen brain. Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted? A rippling, throbbing, , Humungus, brain? Now’s your chance.

Researchers at Harvard have shown that regular meditation thickens your cortex. Generally the cortex thins as we age, but this area of gray matter, or, as some scientists call it, “thought goo,” seems to get thicker with age, at least in folks who meditate.

The study took a group of 20 experienced meditators, and compared their brain scans with those of 15 nonmeditators. During the brain scanning, meditators meditated, and nonmeditators “thought about whatever they wanted” (so, like, cigarettes, animals in clothing, detergent commercials, and clouds shaped like stuff. You know: stuff we normals enjoy).

All participants were adults, and came from a range of professions (except for 4 of the meditators, who actually were teachers of meditation or yoga).

The scans indicated that people who meditated an average of 40 minutes a day had gray matter of increased thickness, compared to the nonmeditators. What’s more, people who had been in the habit of meditating for a longer period of time had “the greatest changes in brain structure,” suggesting that meditation was the cause for the increase in gray matter, and not that people with thick gray matter are more inclined to meditate.

The increase in thickness, it should be said, only amounts to 4 to 8 thousandths of an inch—sadly not enough to make your brain bulletproof. The difference was consistent, however between people who meditated and those who did not, and further studies are planned to examine how this change might affect the health of a meditator.

Because meditation seems to counteract thinning of the brain over time, there’s some thought that the practice could slow—or reverse—the aging of the brain.

Monks and yogis, a researcher points out, suffer from the same ailments as they age as the rest of us, but they claim an increased capacity for attention and memory.

It’s still a toss up, as far as I’m concerned. Sure, monks may enjoy a lucid old-age, but that means they sacrificed tons of time meditating in their youth, when they could have been taking hard drugs and listening to rock and roll. I suppose it just depends on where your priorities are.

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