Calming the working mind

May 15, 2014 by Melanie Rieders, Harvard University
Marianne Bergonzi leads a yoga practice for Harvard employees at Monks Library in Harvard University Health Services. Bergonzi first took up yoga practice when she was 50 years old. Credit: Melanie Rieders

Marianne Bergonzi first tried yoga when she was 50 years old. Describing the experience as life-changing, Bergonzi soon began teaching classes. "I knew I had to pass the yogic philosophy on to people who [may] never get a chance to learn the body, mind, and breath connection."

Jeff Matrician, an acupuncturist at Harvard University Health Services' David S. Rosenthal, M.D. Center for Wellness, treats patients for reasons that include pain management, neurological conditions, asthma, drug abuse, alcoholism, weight control, smoking, stroke, gastrointestinal disorders, gynecological and obstetric problems, and stress management.

The Western approach reduces symptoms to determine causes for problems in the body, Matrician said. Eastern medicine differentiates itself with a global or holistic approach. "Perhaps a problem is that we're looking for specific causes to treat, rather than approaching with a larger view," Matrician said.

Harvard-affiliated researcher Sara Lazar has led a series of studies to help understand what kind of structural and functional changes occur in the brain with meditation. Noticing profound, positive changes after starting yoga in graduate school at Harvard, she decided to shift her career to try to understand them.

Lazar said meditation became a topic of interest within the medical community in the 1960s and '70s, but faced setbacks as its associations with the generational drug culture undermined its practical benefits. Furthermore, the language used to describe meditative practices was often mystical, damaging its credibility, making claims while failing to align with the scientific method.

Marianne Bergonzi leads Harvard employees Sarah Colgan (front) and Kathleen Fox through a yoga practice. Credit: Melanie Rieders

Lazar and her team were able to utilize a secular meditation-based clinical program that had been created to reduce stress and medical symptoms. Subjects in the six-month blind study are given MRI scans before, two months after, and four months after completion of a two-month stress-reduction program. The MRIs first scan the brain structure, then observe resting brain activity.

The recent study is built on previous ones that have shown that meditation increases , decreases amygdala gray matter, and may slow age-related decline of the prefrontal cortex. These results provide compelling neurobiological reasons why meditators report less stress; a reduction in symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, pain, and insomnia; enhanced focus; and an increase in general life satisfaction.

Sara Lazar (from left), Thomas Calahan, and Noel Chan observe a live MRI scan. Credit: Melanie Rieders

Lazar said she is not trying to demystify anything spiritual through these studies. She admits that the study's meditation practices contain "underpinnings of Buddhist philosophy," but prefers to view meditation with a "practical approach, understanding [it] in terms of ."

Explore further: Suggests meditation may reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression

Related Stories

Suggests meditation may reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression

January 6, 2014
Some 30 minutes of meditation daily may improve symptoms of anxiety and depression, a new Johns Hopkins analysis of previously published research suggests.

Meditation: A stress reliever, but not a cure-all, study finds

March 4, 2014
A new study finds that research on mindfulness meditation has yielded moderate evidence that the practice can reduce anxiety, depressive symptoms and pain, but little to no evidence that it can reduce substance abuse or improve ...

Anxious? Activate your anterior cingulate cortex with a little meditation

June 4, 2013
Scientists, like Buddhist monks and Zen masters, have known for years that meditation can reduce anxiety, but not how. Scientists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, however, have succeeded in identifying the brain functions ...

Stress reduction through meditation may aid in slowing the progression of Alzheimer's disease

November 18, 2013
It's well known that the brains of meditators change, but it's not entirely clear what those changes mean or how the changes might benefit the meditator. A new pilot study led by researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical ...

Can meditation make you a more compassionate person?

April 1, 2013
Scientists have mostly focused on the benefits of meditation for the brain and the body, but a recent study by Northeastern University's David DeSteno, published in Psychological Science, takes a look at what impacts meditation ...

Recommended for you

Linguistic red flags from Facebook posts can predict future depression diagnoses

October 15, 2018
In any given year, depression affects more than 6 percent of the adult population in the United States—some 16 million people—but fewer than half receive the treatment they need. What if an algorithm could scan social ...

Study suggests biological basis for depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances in older adults

October 15, 2018
UC San Francisco researchers, in collaboration with the unique Brazilian Biobank for Aging Studies (BBAS) at the University of São Paulo, have shown that the earliest stages of the brain degeneration associated with Alzheimer's ...

Early changes to synapse gene regulation may cause Alzheimer's disease

October 15, 2018
Alzheimer's disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia, involving memory loss and a reduction in cognitive abilities. Patients with AD develop multiple abnormal protein structures in their brains that are thought to ...

Clues that suggest people are lying may be deceptive, study shows

October 12, 2018
The verbal and physical signs of lying are harder to detect than people believe, a study suggests.

How to avoid raising a materialistic child

October 12, 2018
If you're a parent, you may be concerned that materialism among children has been on the rise. According to research, materialism has been linked to a variety of mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, as ...

The long-term effects of maternal high-fat diets

October 12, 2018
If a mother eats a high-fat diet, this can have a negative effect on the health of her offspring—right down to her great-grandchildren. This is the conclusion drawn by researchers at ETH Zurich from a study with mice.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.