The mindfulness practice increases the gray matter density in the specific regions of the brain. The gray matter of the brain consists mainly of neurons. It is primarily associated with processing and cognition as opposed to white matter which mainly acts as a relay between different parts of the brain.
According to a study conducted at Harvard Medical School in 2010, the mindfulness practices specifically increase the gray matter density in following areas.
Posterior Cingulate Cortex
The primary role of the hippocampus is in new memory formation. But it is also involved in regulating emotions, responsiveness and arousal. People with major depression and PTSD(Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) are found to have a lower gray matter density in the hippocampus. Stress also causes density reduction of hippocampus. It has the ability to self regenerate. SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors), which include commonly used antidepressants are known to increase the volume of the hippocampus. In some ways, meditation produces the same effect as anti-depressants.
Temporo-parietal junction is involved in social cognition. Social cognition is the ability to infer mental states like intentions, desires and goals of other people. In our tightly connected social lives, this faculty is much more important that we realize. Increasing density in this area is also believed to increase compassion and empathy for others.
The posterior cingulate cortex is active when assessing the relevance of a stimulus to oneself. More importantly, all three, hippocampus, temporo-parietal junction and posterior cingulate cortex, together form a brain network that support variety of forms of self projections including the projections that conceives the viewpoint of others. This indicates that the increased gray matter density in the above mentioned brain parts is involved in affecting the view of the self and how we conceive viewpoint of others. These traits largely influence our emotional stability or emotional intelligence.
The parts within the cerebellum that got denser are the parts responsible for emotional and cognitive regulation. They are involved in regulating appropriateness of the emotional and cognitive response. Other regions with increased density near the brainstem are responsible for synthesizing and releasing norepinephrine and serotonin. It is known that both of these hormones are intimately connected with behavioral optimization and mood control. Their deficit is known to lead to conditions like depression and ADHD(Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).
As you can see mindfulness practices increase density of gray matter in the regions of brain involved in memory formation, regulation of emotions, regulation of behavior, stress management, taking proper perspective, correctly inferring the viewpoint of others and correctly understanding the emotional state of others. All of which are foundational attributes for enhanced emotional intelligence and memory.
Over the past decade, there has been multiple studies that support these findings. This is one of the reason a whole range of mindfulness based interventions are used by mental health professionals.
We will explore more of the health benefits of mindfulness practice in future posts. Feel free to drop in your questions or comments.