Why You Shouldn't Forget to Meditate
You've probably heard that regular meditation can help reduce stress and anxiety. In fact, we recommended practicing the skill exactly one year ago. Now there's even more reason to give it a try: It might also make you smarter. A fall 2005 study found that the brains of people who meditate were about 5 percent thicker in the areas that deal with focus and memory than the brains of nonmeditators. The more time someone had spent meditating in the past, the thicker their brains were in those spots.
Though the study doesn't prove it, "the implication is that meditation may actually improve attention and memory," says Sara Lazar, a research scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and the study's lead author. Researchers recruited 20 experienced meditators, who practiced betweeen four and six hours a week on average, and 15 control subjects, who had never meditated. The brains of participants in both groups were scanned using magnetic resonance imaging and then compared. The MRI s showed that areas of the cerebral cortex and the insula were thicker in the regular meditators' brains. These are the areas that are particularly active during insight meditation--the method used by participants--which involves keeping a concentrated focus on internal stimuli such as breathing.
Yoga, too. In daily life, having meditation experience might help you focus better during a test, pick up more details watching a movie, or even detect something that jumps in front of your car a split-second sooner, says Lazar. Centers that teach meditation and yoga--which can yield similar benefits--are available even in smaller cities, and books and tapes can also guide newbies through the basics.
But don't throw out your schoolbooks yet. Noting that it's difficult to accurately measure the brain, Adrian Dobs, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, says, "I'm not sure I believe in the brain size increase." Even if there were a difference in meditators' brains, Dobs questioned whether it had any effect on their intelligence. Still, a thicker mind and less stress sounds like a smart combination.
This story appears in the December 26, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.