Want a brain boost? Try meditation, according to researchers

By Jenny Westberg

Meditation has benefits that go far beyond simple relaxation, according to a team of scientists at the University of Oregon. It can actually change the structure of your brain.

It works fast, too, even for beginners. Changes to brain fibers started after just six hours of training, and were evident after 11 hours of practice.

The August 2010 study used a traditional Chinese meditation technique called IBMT, or integrative body-mind training.

According to lead author Yi-Yuan Tang, IBMT promotes mind-body awareness through a state of restful alertness. Practitioners do not attempt to control their thoughts; this is achieved gradually through posture, breathing and relaxation. A coach provides instructions, guidance and imagery. The practice is done to music.

University researchers used before-and-after brain imaging to look for changes in the connective fibers in the brain. They found positive structural changes, especially in the area of the anterior cingulate, which is related to emotional regulation and behavior. The changes appeared only in subjects who meditated, not in control group participants who only received relaxation training.

Mental Health Benefits

Researchers say the findings are significant to mental health. In the brain, the anterior cingulate helps a person act in accordance with their goals, and problems in the area have been associated with depression, schizophrenia, ADHD and other disorders.

An earlier study showed that IBMT lowered the stress hormone cortisol, resulting in less anxiety, depression, anger and fatigue.

The U of O scientists have plans for further research, to see if longer periods of IBMT meditation might stimulate brain growth.

While IBMT is not yet available in the United States, other types of meditation have been shown to help build focus, attention and performance. In an April 2010 study, for instance, after only four days of training for 20 minutes per day, subjects practicing mindfulness meditation performed significantly better in cognitive tests. Numerous other studies have shown benefits for various other techniques.

Not Just for Monks

Meditation techniques include concentration, mindfulness, visualization, breathing, progressive relaxation, and many others. Some meditation is performed while seated, but other types involve movement.

Jaymie Meyer, writing in “Corporate Wellness Magazine,” says meditation isn’t just for new-agers or navel-gazing ascetics. All sorts of people, from busy moms to high-powered executives, are working meditation into their lives. In fact, Meyer says, more and more employers are encouraging workers to meditate by setting aside a special “quiet room” for workers to take a meditation break. For companies, this can pay off in productivity.

If you are interested in meditation, here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Choose a technique that works for you. What works for one person might not work for another, and might even be harmful.
  2. If you try a meditation technique and don’t like it, don’t give up on meditation itself. There are many different types. A qualified teacher can help you find an appropriate technique.
  3. If a class or workshop feels uncomfortable, or the teacher shames you for “not doing it right,” it’s probably not the place for you. Keep looking!
  4. Start small – even a few minutes a day. Eventually it will feel more natural and become part of your life.

Meditation Resources

Free beginning classes in meditation are offered across the Portland area, including those listed below. Call first for information.

Shambhala Meditation Center of Portland

Free instruction prior to regular Tuesday evening practice, 7-9 p.m., and before Sunday meditation, 9 a.m.-noon, first and third Sundays of each month.
1110 SE Alder Street, Suite 203, Portland OR 97214

Bodhi Tree Center
Free practice group, open to all (donations accepted) – no experience necessary
Sunday 7-9 p.m.
5403 SE Center Street, Portland OR 97206
Information: Denise, 503-760-8430

Teach Street
Free Introduction to Meditation classes
Mondays and Wednesdays, 7:30-8:30 p.m.
3135 SE Hawthorne Blvd
Portland OR 97214
503-980-4629 ext. 334-085-4

Portland Dharma Center

Free Introduction to Meditation classes – beginners welcome
Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday evenings – doors open 7 p.m.
2514 SE Madison, Portland OR 97214
Information: Zen Community of Oregon, 503-728-0654