“Grow” your brain with yoga and meditation

hippocampusIf you’ve ever been on an elevator for nearly ten minutes you’ll appreciate the speed with which neuroscientist Dr. Sara Lazar gives one of the best “elevator speeches” on a complicated topic. She became interested in how yoga and meditation might effect the brain.

The following is an eight minute, high speed run down on some of her work. This is a TEDx event filmed in Cambridge, MA in 2011 where she explains the benefits of yoga and meditation in terms that are easy to understand and amazing to comprehend. In her research she has found that the size of some of the regions in our brain change with yoga and meditation and that the physical change is a thickening of our grey matter:

A link to the TEDx video: How Meditation Can Reshape Our Brains, Sara Lazar

Background to her work, the research team and their approach: https://www.nmr.mgh.harvard.edu/~lazar/

Science continues to show the benefits of how by changing our thoughts we can literally change our minds. Neuroplasticity is a modern term that demystifies what may have been considered a fuzzy, fluffy “story” that yoga and meditation practitioners have been telling for centuries. A person can actually change the size, shape and condition of their brain by thinking thoughts – both good and bad.

Read more about the effects of meditation and yoga on trauma and neuroplasticity.

Trauma and being present in the body

The energy body is more than a metaphor used to describe the activity we associate with the concepts of the chakras and prana. Western science and Eastern philosophy merge with the phrase “energy body,” to refer to the actual, physical reactions to external stimulus. The brains of people who suffer from various levels of trauma exhibit a wide range of physical reactions that can be described as a disconnect with their bodies and are often marked by the inability to be “present” in a way that allows clear focus and concentration.

Trauma, like many complicated ailments that appear as a wide spectrum, is easier to spot in their extreme expression. Recent studies into PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) are a good illustration of trauma in the extreme because the experiences of people who suffer from PTSD are cut in such stark relief against those who experience mild depression or the stress of everyday life. PTSD can be looked at as  over-the-top trauma that is so extreme as to be  paralyzing in every way: socially, psychologically, physically, emotionally, etc.

It is with great interest to bring together a discussion of two ends of the spectrum – the extremes of either being present in the body or being unable to be present. What are the physical, chemical, energy body reactions that pull us between these opposite poles of being in the world?

Every moment of our lives is characterized by our physical reaction to the world around us. As it turns out (surprise!) we are primarily operating from the emotions and the physical response to our environment. It is a secondary response when we act from our brains logical response to emotional stimulus.

The following article by Bessel A. Van der Kolk, a psychiatrist from Boston University who speaks and writes on the topic of PTSD demonstrates surprising details of what goes on in the brain of the traumatized person.

Clinical Implications of Neuroscience Research in PTSD, Bessel A. Van der Kolk, 2006

Around numbered page 10-11 Kolk describes the parts of the brain affected by trauma and explains an actual shutting down of parts of the brain that would normally help us process/understand/integrate our emotions:

Specifically, neuroimaging studies of people with PTSD have found decreased activation of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). The medial prefrontal comprises anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and medial parts of the orbitofrontal prefrontal cortices.  The anterior cingulate (ACC) specifically has consistently been implicated in PTSD. The ACC plays a role in the experiential aspects of emotion, as well as in the integration of emotion and cognition. It has extensive connections with multiple brain structures, including the hypothalamus, amygdala, and brain stem autonomic nuclei. Thus, the ACC is part of a system that orchestrates the autonomic, neuroendocrine, and behavioral expression of emotion and may play a key role in the visceral aspects of emotion. – B.A. Van der Kolk

Kolk goes on to discuss the effects of yoga, siting studies involving people practicing yoga. On page 12 he mentions the fascinating studies by Sarah Lazar involving yoga at Massachusetts General Hospital. As a related note, here is Sarah Lazar on TED Talk giving one of the best eight minute “elevator speeches” on the benefits of yoga and meditation and the physical change of thickening our grey matter:

How Meditation Can Reshape Our Brains, Sara Lazar

Bessel A. Van der Kolk is featured on the syndicated radio show, To The Best of Our Knowledge in their show titled “Super Senses,” a broadcast from September 28, 2014. The show is vignette based on the theme of the senses. Skip over to the time on the sound recording 26:35 to hear Van der Kolk describe his research and how we can heal from trauma, starting with the truest statement, “We ARE our bodies!”