Eight Weeks to a Better Brain
The current issue of the Harvard Gazette has a fascinating article entitled Eight Weeks to a Better Brain that shines new light on the real and measurable positive effects of mindfulness practice. It was incredibly gratifying to read this, and of course I immediately forwarded the article to the participants in the current eight-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy course. We discussed it in class the next day, and it was clear that this news gave several people a new hope that in fact what we are doing might actually work for them. It can be so hard for us to really believe we can be happy again or free from the need for medication, or simply have a sense of being in the driver’s seat of our minds and our lives. Seeing concrete evidence of changes in the structure of the brain gave us a new, firm foundation upon which to stand as we navigate the mind’s turbulence.
Perhaps it is because we are just past the half-way mark in the class, but it also seemed that this new sense of hope inspired a little of what I like to call “healthy feistiness.” Instead of sitting back and nodding vaguely when I suggested such outrageous notions as accepting the mind’s miserable gyrations, a new level of challenging and questioning arose in the class, which I am delighted to see arrive. It means that people are beginning to encounter the real challenges of walking the walk — which is MUCH harder than talking the talk, especially when it comes to mindfulness of difficult emotions. But hard isn’t bad. We do all kinds of hard things, like rebuilding a car engine for fun, knitting an argyle sweater, participating in the AIDS ride or climbing a mountain. We LIKE hard. What we can’t tolerate is hopeless. And this new study gives us concrete evidence that it’s not hopeless!
What the study showed is that participants in an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class (MBSR, the sister class of MBCT, which has a similar structure of developing mindfulness practices) had measurable increases in gray-matter density in structures in the brain associated with learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion, and introspection and decreased gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with anxiety and stress.
According to the article, the study’s senior author, Sara Lazar, said, “Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day. This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”
MBCT is rare in that it is a scientifically studied, short-term process to address depression and anxiety. In duplicated studies, the eight-week course was shown to cut depression relapse by half in people who had experienced three or more major-depressive episodes. Perhaps Harvard’s new brain research explains how it can be so effective.
Registration is open for the next eight-week MBCT class, starting on March 30th. Please feel free to contact me with any questions. Mary@MidtownMFT.com