We live in a culture obsessed with sculpted physiques and the gym routines that make them, but if you want your brain to be in as good shape as your body, think of meditation as crunches for your head.
According to a small study reported by the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, the brains of people who meditate regularly shrink less with age and maintain stronger connections. In other words, there now appears to be scientific data supporting the theory that quiet reflection and contemplation makes you smarter.
The researchers used technology known as diffusion tensor imaging to scan the brains of study participants and uncover differences in structural connectivity. The study included 27 people who practiced meditation styles such as Shamatha, Vipassana and Zazen for between five to 46 years, and 27 other control subjects of the same age and gender who did not meditate. The investigators found that the two groups had pronounced differences in structural connectivity throughout the entire brain.
"Meditation might not only cause changes in brain anatomy by inducing growth, but also by preventing reduction," says study co-author Eileen Luders, a visiting assistant professor at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging. "That is, if practiced regularly and over years, meditation may slow down aging-related brain atrophy, perhaps by positively affecting the immune system."
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Before you start chanting or seeking out a personal guru, Luders points out that "it's possible that meditators might have brains that are fundamentally different to begin with. For example, a particular brain anatomy may have drawn an individual to meditation or helped maintain an ongoing practice—meaning that the enhanced fiber connectivity in meditators constitutes a predisposition towards meditation, rather than being the consequence of the practice."
So does meditation do the body good or do people with healthier bodies gravitate towards meditation? This small study doesn't definitively answer that question, but if you are interested in keeping your brain in top shape and firing on all cylinders as you get older, the smart thing to do would be to allow time in your daily workout routine for some inward journeying.