In the last few years a growing body of research has conclusively demonstrated the powerful, positive effects that meditation andmindfulness practices have on the brain and body, and a new collaborative study between professors at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute is now taking these findings one step further.
In a summary of their findings, [Miller et al. (2013)] report that they have found a direct correlation between the level of importance a person places on spirituality in their lives and the thickness of certain regions of their brains.
“The brain is an incredibly dynamic organ that responds to our mental patterns and habits”
The study found that that people who expressed that spirituality or religion was important to them had significantly thicker cerebral cortices—a part of the brain rich in highly active neural networks responsible for sensory perception, language and emotion processing—than those who did not.
“Our beliefs and our moods are reflected in our brain and with new imaging techniques we can begin to see this,” Myrna Weissman, one of the study’s primary authors is quoted as saying. “The brain is an extraordinary organ. It not only controls, but is controlled by our moods.”
The study used MRI brain scans to measure the cortical thickness of 103 adults between the ages of 18 and 54, who were then asked to rate the importance of spirituality and/or religion in their lives. Participants who placed an emphasis on these qualities had measurably thicker cerebral cortices compared to those who did not. The latter group was found to be more prone to depression, hereditary or acquired.
The study’s findings are in line with other similar research aimed at demonstrating a correlation between a person’s predominant state of mind, brain functioning and other physical reactions in the body. For example, a recent study by Kaliman et al. (2014) found that intensive meditation positively affected gene expression. The expression of genes that are involved in inflammation, and more generally in the body’s stress response, were downregulated, meaning that these processes were reduced or muted, which positively affects a number of markers for overall health and wellbeing.
Changes in gene expression are likely related to many of the actual physical changes the brain experiences as a result of meditation and mindfulness practices, as well as one’s overarching beliefs and thought patterns such as those found in the participants who placed a high degree of emphasis on spirituality.
The rapidly expanding field of neuroscience is discovering in short order that the brain is actually an incredibly dynamic organ that responds to our mental patterns and habits, either directly or indirectly, and can cause a cascade of other related changes in the body. Armed with this knowledge, it becomes crystal clear that our state of mind is hugely important in our overall health and wellbeing and that adopting time-honored spiritual practices such as meditation and mindfulness, are simple, yet highly effective ways to realize these benefits.