When my daughter Lauren was in fourth grade, she had to propose and conduct a science experiment in school. Her choice was "Will gingko bilobo improve memory in older people?"
You know who she recruited as one of the (ahem) "older people." The next week I found myself popping ginkgo and playing the electronic game "Simon Says", which is how Lauren tracked my memory progress. The first week I was embarrassingly bad, following Simon to only six steps. But by the end of the eight-week experiment, I had improved to a personal best of 22 steps. Was it thanks to the ginkgo? Maybe. But I was still misplacing my car keys.
Now comes a new study that claims 30 minutes of meditation per day actually grows the gray matter associated with memory, sense of self and empathy.
The findings appeared in the January 30, 2011 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. M.R.I. brain scans taken before and after the participants' meditation time found increased gray matter concentration in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. At the same time, there was a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, which is linked to anxiety and stress. A control group that did not meditate showed no such changes.
Britta Holzelm, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and the study's lead author, said the participants practiced "mindfulness meditation," a form that was introduced in the U.S. in the late 1970s, and has roots to ancient Buddha meditation techniques.
Previous studies have also shown that there are structural differences between the brains of meditators and those who don't meditate, but this new study is the first to document changes in gray matter over time through meditation.
And although Dr. Holzel cautions that these are preliminary findings, they're good enough for me. This afternoon I'm going to drive to a meditation center and learn the practice. That is, if I can find my car keys.