Sunday, July 18, 2010
The Brain Matters
I was strolling on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica Saturday morning, walking toward the AMC theater to see "Inception" and enter the dreamscape of the mind. The annual UCLA health fair was in full swing. Booths lined either side of the center aisle of the Promenade. It was a health information overflow. I was proud. UCLA is my employer. One of the places I teach yoga on campus is in the Public Health department, a building which also houses the brain mapping imaging center. It is in this building that meditation classes are held and the effects of mediation on the brain are studied - or mapped.
I was a women who spent most of her life on the floor of my bedroom or in a gym for early morning aerobics to keep fit. I loved the effect of releasing endorphins. It made me joyful and gave me unending energy. One of my fondest memories was attending a 7 am aerobics class in the trendy Las Vegas gym called The Sports Club and working out with a room full of executives, judges,lawyers before we all took off for work. Our teacher was AJ an Army drill instructor, who put us through our paces non-stop for forty minutes. I then went out to lift some weight before going home to make my boys breakfast and start the day. It was all sweat and work for the next twenty years until I discovered yoga - and that was after a trail of Jane Fonda aerobics, step aerobics, spinning, cardio machines, and a variety of pumping iron.
And then yoga entered my life at the most perfect moment. My long term relationship was in trouble and it would be winding down eventually and I was not in a good place emotionally. He was away for quite awhile in the last six months that we lived behind Muscle Beach in Venice. I was alone a lot. I worked and came home and there was yoga to comfort me. I followed my son and his girlfriend (now wife) to yoga classes at their favorite studio and it became my home, too. And then I learned to meditate and chant and there was the promise of peace.
Push-up, crunches, gyms and personal trainers - all strategies for toning the body and building muscle. But what did it do for my brain?
Not much. And know that as as I aged, my brain was going to begin the long process of shrinking. Oh, yes, the brain gets smaller and smaller as we age.
In a story published in the journal NeuroImage, UCLA researchers who used high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of people who meditate report that certain regions in the brains of long-term meditators were larger than in a similar control group.
I pay close attention to these findings because meditators show significantly larger volumes of the hippocampus and areas within the orbito-frontal cortex, the thalamus and the inferior temporal gyrus. These are regions known for regulating emotions.
Brain researchers have known for a long time that meditators have the ability to produce positive emotions, retain emotional stability and engage in mindful behavior; in other words, raise the level of awareness and stay calm in the middle of daily stress.
The study of brain anatomy can give researchers clues as to why mediators have some exceptional abilities in the area of positive behavior. Studies have been conducted on meditators who had practiced various forms of meditation that ranged from five to forty-six years, with an average of twenty-four years. Most meditated between ten and ninety minutes every day. Deep concentration played a pivotal roll in their practice. Researchers measured differences in brain structure; they found significantly larger cerebral measurements in meditators compared with controls, larger volumes of right hippocampus and increased gray matter in the right orbito-frontal cortex, the right thalamus and the left inferior temporal lobe. These are areas of the brain are closely tied to emotion. It may be that is why meditators have the ability to regulate their emotions and allow for well-adjusted responses to whatever life thrown at them.
More study is needed. Does meditation produce an increased number of neurons? Does meditation produce the larger size of the neurons? Does it produce a particular wiring pattern in meditators? Lots more of the brain to study as it relates to meditation. But it's certainly exciting to realize that our brains don't have to shrink, we don't have to devolve into early senility, and we can stay mentally active well into our 90's.
See, it's fun to age gracefully. It's fun to explore our inner being and find inner peace. It's a heck of a lot better than listening to AJ every morning barking order to a room full of sleepy zombies and walking out of an aerobics class brain dead.
Can't wait for my yoga retreat at the end of the month. I'm logging enough meditation hours to last me at least three months.
Oh, yeah, "Inception" was fascinating. I got to use my brain. It's about dream espionage and sharing dreams in order to get people to do what other people want them to do. Too long but so very interesting a concept. My gray matter wasn't shrinking that's for sure.