Full text of neuroscientist Sara Lazar’s talk: How Meditation Can Reshape Our Brains at TEDxCambridge 2011 conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: MP3 – How Meditation Can Reshape Our Brains by Sara Lazar at TEDxCambridge 2011
Good morning. So when I was in graduate school, I was a runner, and a friend and I decided that we’re going to run the Boston Marathon. And so we started training and we overtrained, and I developed knee and back problems.
So I went to see a physical therapist, and they told me that I had to stop running and instead I should just stretch.
As I was leaving the physical therapist office, I saw an ad for a vigorous yoga class that promised not only to promote flexibility, but also to promote strength and cardiorespiratory fitness. So I thought, oh, well, this is a great way that I can stretch, but also remain in shape, and maybe I could even still run the Boston Marathon.
So I went to the yoga class and I really enjoyed it, except when the teacher would make all sorts of claims, you know, all sorts of medical claims, but also claims about, oh, yes, it will help you…you’ll increase your compassion and open your heart and I was just like…I remember my eyes would roll and…I think, yeah, yeah, yeah, I am here to stretch.
But what was interesting was that after a couple of weeks I started noticing some of these changes, I started noticing that I was calmer and I was better able to handle difficult situations, and indeed, I was feeling more compassionate and open-hearted towards other people, and I was better able to see things from other people’s point of view.
And, you know, I was like, hm, how could this be, how could this be? And, I thought, well maybe, you know, it’s just a placebo response, right? She told me I will feel this, so maybe that’s why I was feeling it.
So I decided to do a literature search to see if there’s any research on this. And low and behold, there was quite a bit showing both yoga and meditation are extremely effective for decreasing stress. They’re also very good for reducing symptoms associated with numerous diseases including depression, anxiety, pain, and insomnia.
And there’s a couple of very good studies demonstrating it can actually improve your ability to pay attention, and most interestingly, I thought virtually every study has shown that people are just happier. They report they’re more satisfied with their life, and they have a higher quality of life. And so, this was interesting to me. And so I decided to switch and start doing this sort of research.
So as a neuroscientist, you know, how could this be happening? How can something as silly as a yoga posture or sitting and watching your breath. How can that lead to all these sorts of different types of changes?
So, what we know is that whenever you engage in a behavior over and over again, that this can lead to changes in your brain. And this is what’s referred to as neuroplasticity. And what this just means is that your brain is plastic and that the neurons can change how they talk to each other with experience.
And so, there’s a couple of studies demonstrating that you can actually detect this, using machines like the MRI machine. The first study was with juggling. They took people who had never ever juggled before, and they scanned them, and then they taught them how to juggle, and they said, “Keep practicing for three months.” And they brought them back after three months, and they scanned them the second time, and they found that they could actually detect with the MRI machine changes in the amount of gray matter in the brain of these people in areas that are important for detecting visual motion.