Recently I read an article on Science Daily called “Evidence Builds That Meditation Strengthens the Brain.” Naturally I was hoping that Brad would comment on the article (see here) and the original research (see here). But until then—oh, I live in hope!—I thought I’d share the links with you and let you know some of my own thoughts about it.
According to the article on Science Daily, Eileen Luders, an assistant professor at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, and her colleagues, have found that long-term meditators have larger amounts of gyrification (“folding” of the cortex, which may allow the brain to process information faster) than people who do not meditate. They also found a direct correlation between the amount of gyrification and the number of meditation years, possibly providing further proof of the brain's neuroplasticity (its ability to adapt to environmental changes).
Particularly interesting was the positive correlation between the number of meditation years and the amount of insular gyrification. Luders said:
The insula has been suggested to function as a hub for autonomic, affective and cognitive integration. Meditators are known to be masters in introspection and awareness as well as emotional control and self-regulation, so the findings make sense that the longer someone has meditated, the higher the degree of folding in the insula.
The intriguing idea that your thoughts can affect the physiology of your brain is not a new one, however. Reading this article immediately made me think of the way Stephen Cope described samskaras in his book Yoga and the Quest for the True Self.
Yogis discovered that consciousness is dominated by highly conditioned patterns of reactivity—patterns that are deeply grooved, and very difficult to change once established.
Every action based on craving or aversion leaves a subliminal impression on the mind. These impressions are called samskaras, or literally, “subliminal activators.” Yogis sometimes think of these subliminal activators as being pressed into the “hot wax of the mind.”
Samskaras are like little tracks, little vectors, little ruts in the muddy road. The next time the car travels that road, these muddy ruts will have hardened into permanent fixtures, and the car wheels will want to slide into them. Indeed it’s easier to steer right into them than to try to avoid them.
|Tide Between Rocks by Brad Gibson|
I have said that samskaras are like ruts in a road, and that as the ruts deepen through repetition, it becomes inevitable that the car will slide into them unawares. Any intentional effort to restrain the car from slipping into the rut is called tapas.
Tapas requires a particular kind of attention—precisely the kind required when driving on a rutted road. We need to be awake. We need to be concentrated in order to avoid the edges of the ruts. And sometimes we need to pull the car wheels—with considerable effort—out of the ridges in the road.
And tapas, which is also a “burning effort,” is exactly what we need to establish and maintain a regular meditation and yoga practice, the very practice that may help us strengthen our brains as well as our bodies. To be continued....