Meditation has always been thought of as an effective way to help calm a person's mind, but an increasing number of experts are finding that meditation may improve a person's mental capabilities while also helping to address a host of physical and emotional conditions. In fact, it is believed that meditation can improve a person's attention span and memory, while also helping them cope with stress and anxiety. Meditation may help reduce the burden of heart disease, and people are looking into it as a way to help cope with chronic pain and depression.

The exact mechanism of how all of this can happen is not completely understood, but recent evidence is revealing that meditation may actually lead to a physical transformation of the brain whereby the connections between neurons becomes stronger and there is a great degree of folding, or gyrification, in the gray matter. Gyrification is linked to faster neural processing, and the amount of gyrification is thought to be tied to the number of years that a person practices meditation. This suggests a level of plasticity in the brain tissue that allows it to adapt to environmental stimuli.

In a recent study, neuroscientists examined the brains of 50 meditators (28 men and 22 women) using MRI scanners. The control group was derived from previous scans from the MRI database. The experimental group had practiced meditation for an average of 20 years employing various types of meditation, including Samatha, Vipassana, Zen, and more. The researchers used an established whole brain approach to measure gyrification of thousands of points along the surface of the brain.

What they saw was a pronounced increase in the amount of gyrification of the cerebral cortex in active meditators. There was also a strong relationship between the number of years that a person meditated and the amount of gyrification. The cerebral cortex, the outermost layer of tissue in the brain, is important for memory, attention, thought, and consciousness. A high degree of folding in this region correlates with what experts believe is a higher level of information processing, decision making, and memory formation.

The authors of the study, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, note that while genetic and environmental factors might have played a role in the findings, the data is nonetheless intriguing with regards to the positive effects of meditation. One intriguing area of study might the relationship of meditation and the onset of dementia.

If you would like to learn more about meditation, visit the website for the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a division of NIH.