The benefits of meditation have received newfound evidence from neuroscience in the last five years, as researchers are finding real physiological changes due to a sort of formally practiced introspection.
Recently scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital had 16 participants take an eight-week mindfulness meditation program. This sort of meditation focuses on nonjudgmental awareness of sensations and feelings. Subjects practiced for about 30 minutes a day.
Brain images were taken of each subject before and after the training. Scientists found increases in gray-matter density in the hippocampus—an area responsible for learning and memory. And they saw decreased density in the amygdala—which is responsible for our anxiety and stress responses.
One area that did not change is the insula, which is associated with self-awareness. The researchers speculate that longer-term meditation might be necessary to affect that area.
All this reminds us of two things: 1) The brain is much more plastic than scientists thought even just a decade ago and 2) the way we feel—calm or anxious—can be correlated with real structural indicators in our brains.