by Tim Keim, EYT500, Yoga Therapist
Dr. Sara Lazar of Harvard University has proven that you can.
Lazar has spent over a decade using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine the brains of those who have been able to increase brain gray matter and maintain these gains with age. Generally gray matter, the part that does the thinking, shrinks with age. Lazar’s work demonstrates that those 50 and above are able to maintain the same amount of gray matter as youngsters half their age.
Lazar’s studies repeatedly show growth of gray matter in crucial parts of the brains of her subjects. These include the prefrontal cortex, parietal lobes, insula, posterior cingulate, hippocampus and cerebellum. Because of their regular practices, Lazar’s subjects not only grew their brains but shrank one important part as well. The amygdala is involved in our response to stressors like fear, anxiety and aggression. The implication of a smaller amygdala is that these subjects are better suited to handle stress and suffer less emotional disturbance and aggressive behavior. (See Lazar’s TEDx Talk on YouTube.)
Briefly, the prefrontal cortex is in charge of executive decision making and IQ, the hippocampus regulates learning and memory and the parietal lobes are the home of empathy. Tangible benefits of increased gray matter are more acute cognitive function, better memory and a more cheerful disposition. Her participants also outperformed control subjects on Graduate Record Examinations (GRE).
What are these people doing to initiate neuroplastic responses in the brain? Lazar’s subjects practiced yoga and meditation to build better brains in just eight weeks. If you’re doubtful, you might be surprised to find that Lazar beat you to the eye-rolling disbelief stage a long time ago. When she began to experience these brain changes herself, Lazar had to get to the bottom of the question.
Now that we know what happens to the brain, we want to know why. That is not altogether certain, but here are a few tantalizing possibilities. Deep, conscious relaxation may have an effect on the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which are produced not only in the brain but the gut as well. Regular, sustained, focused attention seems to change the way neurons communicate with each other. Meditation is also well known as a great stress reliever. Simply relieving stress seems to set the stage for this cascade of beneficial gray matter increases.
Meditation is being still, focusing on your breath, perhaps using a mantra (mind tool) and suspending judgment as you synchronize mind and breath.
Jesus gives a good example of meditation and its benefits. “The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light.” Matthew 6:22.
Join a group, read some books about meditation or contact me directly. Most importantly, create your own meditation practice and rebuild your brain. Successful brain aging is a technique that can be mastered by anyone. What will you do with your fantastic, neuroplastic brain?
Tim Keim is an IAYT certified yoga therapist, and has been teaching yoga for 15 years. Keim can be heard Saturday and Sunday mornings from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. on 91.5-FM, WUNC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.