Monday, September 28, 2009

Summary of Research on Meditation and Brain Changes

I prepared this summary of research on meditation and neuroplasticity for the Yoga Service Council. We're putting together research reviews and "best practices" recommendations across a wide range of topics to support individuals in the yoga and healthcare communities. We hope that these resources will help individuals apply for funding, bring yoga/meditation into a new clinical or educational setting, and develop evidence-based interventions.


The brain, once thought to be relatively fixed in structure and hard-wired in function, has been shown in the last decade to be remarkably responsive to experience. Mindfulness meditation and yoga appear to have positive neuroplastic effects, supporting both structure and function related to improved attention, memory, self-regulation, and mood.

For example, multiple studies have shown that long-term meditators have increased neuron density and preserved structure in areas of the brain (such as the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, temporal gyrus, and insula) associated with attention, memory, self-awareness, self-control, and emotion regulation. (1-4) Long-term meditators have also shown increased gray matter density in the brain stem, which may be related to improved self-control and emotion regulation. (5)

Research also demonstrates positive differences in brain function. For example, experienced meditators, compared to those with less or no meditation experience, show increased activation in areas of the brain associated with attention during tasks that require focus. (6-7) Experienced meditators also perform better on tasks that require focused attention and cognitive flexibility. (8-10)

The neuroplastic effects of meditation and yoga also include positive mood changes. A single session of yoga has been shown to increase brain levels of GABA, which is associated with reduced anxiety and improved mood. (10) An eight-week training program in mindful meditation and yoga led to changes in frontal brain activation--increased left prefrontal activity--associated with positive emotions and well-being. (11) A similar training helped preserve increased left prefrontal activity in previously suicidal individuals, preventing further deterioration of mood. (12) Meditation experience is also associated with increased activation of brain regions (such as the cingulate cortex and insula) associated with empathy for others. (13) A meditation intervention has been shown to increase experience of positive emotions, and these changes in mood further predicted increased sense of purpose in life and social support, and decreased illness and depression. (14)

In summary, mindfulness and yoga are potentially valuable tools for improving cognitive function, self-regulation, and mood, in part because of how they influence the structure and function of the brain.

-Written and References Compiled by Kelly McGonigal, PhD

1. Luders E, Toga AW, Lepore N, Gaser C. The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: Larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter. NeuroImage. 2009;45:672–78.
2. Hölzel BK, Ott U, Gard T, Hempel H, Weygandt M, Morgen K, Vaitl D. Investigation of mindfulness meditation practitioners with voxel-based morphometry. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2008;3(1):55-61.
3. Lazar SW, Kerr CE, Wasserman RH, Gray JR, Greve DN, Treadway MT, McGarvey M, Quinn BT, Dusek JA, Benson H, Rauch SL, Moore CI, Fischl B. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport. 2005;16(17):1893-7.
4. Pagnoni G, Cekic M. Age effects on gray matter volume and attentional performance in Zen meditation. Neurobiol Aging. 2007;28(10):1623-7.
5. Vestergaard-Poulsen P, van Beek M, Skewes J, Bjarkam CR, Stubberup M, Bertelsen J, Roepstorff A. Long-term meditation is associated with increased gray matter density in the brain stem. Neuroreport. 2009;20(2):170-4.
6. Brefczynski-Lewis JA, Lutz A, Schaefer HS, Levinson DB, Davidson RJ. Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term meditation practitioners. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2007;104(27):11483-8.
7. Baron Short E, Kose S, Mu Q, Borckardt J, Newberg A, George MS, Kozel FA. Regional brain activation during meditation shows time and practice effects: An exploratory FMRI study. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2007 Oct 27[Epub].
8. Slagter HA, Lutz A, Greischar LL, Francis AD, Nieuwenhuis S, Davis JM, Davidson RJ. Mental training affects distribution of limited brain resources. PLoS Biol. 2007;5(6):e138.
9. Moore A, Malinowski P. Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility.
Conscious Cogn. 2009;18(1):176-86.
10. Garland E, Gaylord S, Park J. The role of mindfulness in positive reappraisal. Explore (NY). 2009;5(1):37-44.
10. Streeter CC, Jensen JE, Perlmutter RM, Cabral HJ, Tian H, Terhune DB, Ciraulo DA, Renshaw PF. Yoga asana sessions increase brain GABA levels: A pilot study. J Altern Complement Med. 2007;13(4):419-26.
11. Davidson RJ, Kabat-Zinn J, Schumacher J, Rosenkranz M, Muller D, Santorelli SF, Urbanowski F, Harrington A, Bonus K, Sheridan JF. Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosom Med. 2003;65(4):564-70.
12. Barnhofer T, Duggan D, Crane C, Hepburn S, Fennell MJ, Williams JM. Effects of meditation on frontal alpha-asymmetry in previously suicidal individuals. Neuroreport. 2007;18(7):709-12.
13. Lutz A, Brefczynski-Lewis J, Johnstone T, Davidson RJ. Regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion by compassion meditation: effects of meditative expertise. PLoS One. 2008;3(3):e1897.
14. Fredrickson BL, Cohn MA, Coffey KA, Pek J, Finkel SM. Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2008;95(5):1045-62.

Friday, September 25, 2009

New Science of Willpower Study: The Virtue of Pessimism

Check out my latest post on Psychology Today.

"Two people are beginning a weight-loss program. One is an optimist and the other a realist -- perhaps even a pessimist. Who has the better chance of losing weight?

According to a new study from Doshisha University in Japan, it's the pessimist. People who began a six-month program of nutrition, exercise, and counseling were less likely to lose weight if they had an optimistic personality.

This at first doesn't make sense. We usually associate optimism with greater success and better health. There's plenty of research showing that optimists have stronger social relationships, are happier, and even live longer. So why wouldn't optimism help people lose weight?"........ [click to read full column]

Study: Saito, H., Kimura, Y., Tashima, S., et al. (2009). Psychological factors that promote behavior modification by obese patients. BioPsychoSocial Medicine 3:9 (in press).

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Mindfulness Reduces Medical Burnout

A new study from the University of Rochester Medical Center reports that mindfulness meditation can reduce burnout in physicians. And we know they need it, thanks to another recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that physician distress and fatigue significantly increase the risk of medical errors.

An important part of the mindfulness training was mindful communication. These communication skills led to an increased sense of support and connection with colleagues, as well as increased empathy for patients.

Coincidentally, my introduction to the now-ubiquitous Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program developed by Jon Kabat Zinn was in an elective class for medical students at Stanford. Community members were also in the class -- people who had been recommended to take the class because of illness or pain -- which made the experience even more eye-opening and educational.

Physicians and physicians-in-training, heal thyself first! Get thee to a mindfulness meditation class.

Monday, September 21, 2009

L.A. Times Article on Yin Yoga

"A softer, gentler form of yoga seems to be quietly on the rise...."

I was interviewed for this L.A. Times article on Yin Yoga.

Also interviewed is the wonderful Molly Kenny, co-founder of the Samarya Yoga Center in Seattle, WA.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Diabolic Secret Powers of Junk Food

My latest column on Psychology Today features a new study that will make you question the loyalty of your favorite comfort food:

"It seems too clever, too diabolic to be true. A recent study shows that foods high in saturated fat -- ice cream, cheese, red meat -- cause your brain to secrete chemicals that tell the body to ignore biological signals of fullness (like leptin and insulin). The result: you don't "feel" full, and you keep eating. It's as if junk food had been shaped by the forces of evolution, learning to fool humans into ever-increasing consumption. And it explains why we seem to have an endless appetite for some foods, like pizza and a pint of Ben and Jerry's."

Read more here....Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

New study: depression increases risk of dying in cancer patients

A new report in the November 15 issue of Cancer analyzed 26 studies that looked at how depression influences cancer progression and survival rates.

Cancer patients who experienced depression were at higher risk for dying. The increased risk was as high as 25% for mild symptoms and 39% for those diagnosed with clinical depression.

This study points to the importance of social support and complementary care, whether psychological, spiritual/religious, or mind-body interventions like yoga, meditation, and exercise. All of these have been shown to improve a sense of control, hope, or meaning during an experience that can feel dehumanizing, uncontrollable, and frightening.

The authors of the report are quick to point out that cancer patients should not be pressured into some forced kind of "positive thinking" or discouraged from feeling and expressing negative emotions.

Study citation: Jillian R. Satin, Wolfgang Linden, and Melanie J. Phillips. Depression as a predictor of disease progression and mortality in cancer patients: a meta-analysis. Cancer, 2009; DOI: 10.1002/cncr.24561

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Guidelines for Teachers of Mixed-Levels Yoga Classes

I created the following guidelines for teachers at studios who participate in Yoga Bear's Share a Mat Program (offering free classes/studio passes to cancer survivors). These guidelines as particularly important for participating studios, but are helpful reminders for all yoga teachers. Enjoy!

Guidelines for Teachers of Mixed-Levels Classes

Mixed-levels classes typically contain students with a variety of abilities, experience, injuries, and illnesses. The following guidelines help ensure that all students, including Yoga Bear participants, feel safe and welcomed in your class.

1. When a new student walks into your classroom. Welcome every student, and be ready to offer assistance setting up or answer questions about the class. Don’t make assumptions based on age or appearance about what they can physically do and what they are looking for in a yoga class. A young student who looks physically fit may have a serious injury or illness and need encouragement to rest or modify as needed; an older or overweight student may be an experienced yoga practitioner ready for a challenge.

2. When a student appears to have special needs or require extra instruction. Not all new students, students with injuries/illness, or students who don’t fit the typical profile of your class (e.g. obese students or seniors) will want continuous extra attention. They may be self-conscious enough and already feel like they stand out. Offer one-on-one attention and support as you would with all students, but try to offer a variety of options to the entire class, rather than constantly singling out one student for special instruction.

3. When a student isn’t following your instruction. There are many reasons a student might choose to modify a pose or refrain from a practice. Don’t make assumptions (e.g. laziness, fear, confusion about instructions) about why the student is not participating fully. Check in with the student and offer information or alternatives, but don’t pry. Student with injuries, symptoms of illness, or side effects from treatment may not want to explain why they need to modify, especially if they are in class to experience some freedom from being a “patient” or a person with cancer (or other illness/injury).

4. Use informed and intentional touch. Students with injuries and illnesses may enjoy supportive touch in a yoga class, but—like any student—may also be wary of getting hurt by an adjustment, or be sensitive to being touched. When you offer touch to students, make sure they have an opportunity to give you permission and feedback. Remember that adjustments can be confusing to students. When possible, explain what you are doing, why, and what you want the student to do in response (e.g. relax your shoulders, bring the knee over the heel, let your torso turn).

5. If you use partner work in your class, give students an easy way to choose whether they want to participate. Just as with touch from an instructor, many students have concerns about being supported or adjusted by an untrained student. Have an alternative for students who consciously choose not to participate in partner work.

6. When emotions come up in practice. In yoga practice, students may experience strong emotions, especially if they are going through a difficult time or dealing with a health challenge. This does not necessarily mean that anything is wrong, or that the student needs special comfort. If you notice a student is upset, privately and discretely ask if there is anything they need, or offer a tissue and give them permission to take care of themselves.

Compiled by Kelly McGonigal, PhD, ( for Yoga Bear (