This article was written by Sarah Lazar, PhD, an investigator in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital who is using brain imaging technology to measure the effects of meditation on brain structure.

If you want to reduce your level of stress and anxiety, our imaging studies have shown that the regular practice of meditation can change how the brain works.

When you engage in a behavior over and over again, it creates structural changes in your brain in a process known as neuroplasticity. You can detect these changes through MRI brain scans.

Our research team recruited participants who had no previous meditation experience and put them into an MRI scanner to get baseline readings of their brains.

One group participated in an eight-week meditation-based stress reduction program where they were asked to spend 40 minutes each day practicing mindfulness exercises. We then compared them to another group of people who had signed up for the same class, but were willing to wait a few months to start the meditation program.

When we scanned both groups eight weeks later, we found that the participants in the meditation program had developed more gray matter in both the hippocampus, an area important for learning, memory and emotion regulation, and the tempo-parietal junction, an area important for perspective-taking, empathy and compassion.

The meditation participants also had a reduction in the amount of gray matter in the amygdala—the part of the body associated with the fight-or-flight response.

The results of these scans helped to confirm the reductions in stress and improvements in well-being that the participants reported after participating in the mediation program.

It wasn’t just that they were telling us they felt better, or that they were experiencing the placebo effect. There was an actual neurobiological reason why they were feeling less stress.

This was originally published by the Mass General Research Institute, the largest hospital-based research program in the United States.