As you may or may not have heard, a recent study lead by Britta Holzel, PhD, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, showed significant benefits to our brains with a group of people engaging an 8-week program in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). More specifically, the group who took MBSR showed an increase in gray matter in key parts of the brain connected to learning, memory and a decrease in gray matter in the amygdala also known as the “fear circuit,” connected with anxiety and stress.
When a study like this comes out a flurry of activity hits the web through news articles and blogs, but what does it really mean?
Does an increase in gray matter mean that if we practice mindfulness meditation for 30-minutes a day for 8 weeks we’ll be smarter, be able to retain more information or have less fear?
The truth is, the field of neuroscience, while enjoying an explosion of new research is still in its infancy. We actually don’t know what this increase in gray matter means. It seems to suggest that if there is change in these areas that are associated with learn, memory, anxiety and stress that it is a positive effect.
But sometimes we can run too far with interpreting the research and then the skeptics come out and have their say debunking what was found.
A helpful question is what are the participants’ experiences? We don’t need to just look to numbers or gray matter density to find out whether this stuff is beneficial.
In all my sessions of leading MBSR or Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) groups, there seems to always be an overwhelming amount of participants that parallel my experience, reporting new insights into how to relate to their difficult emotions, a greater awareness around getting stuck in auto-pilot, and renewed sense of purpose and hope in life.
I’m certainly not saying mindfulness is a panacea, but what I’m saying is that we can easily get lost in the science and numbers and overlook what people have been experiencing for millennia around the benefits of learning how to become more aware of how our minds work and become more present to life.
I also am not saying we need to dump the science. Science is critical as it backs up what so many people have already known and breaks down a barrier for the skeptics to come and experience it for themselves. This has given access to thousands of people to experience mindfulness.
However, there is a fundamental crutch in our culture to rely on experts to the detriment of trusting our own experience. It’s important to learn how to trust ourselves once again. So an increase in gray matter in areas of learning and memory and a decrease in gray matter density in areas of stress and anxiety is cool, but we don’t need to get lost in it.
At the end of the day, it’s our experience that is our most reliable teacher, trust in that more than any research or guru out there.
As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.