Neurons That Fire Together Wire Together: The New York Times Says 8 Weeks of Meditation, 30 Minutes a Day, May Change the Brain

More study is needed (obviously), but the New York Times, in its Health section, has a startling article on meditation’s apparent ability to literally change how the brain wires itself up, and that after only 8 weeks of very modest (30 minutes a day) meditation practice:

[S]cientists say that meditators . . . may be benefiting from changes in their brains. The researchers report that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. The findings will appear in the Jan. 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. M.R.I. brain scans taken before and after the participants’ meditation regimen found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress. A control group that did not practice meditation showed no such changes.

In the 1940s, psychologist Donald Hebb made a quip that appears to be getting a lot of contemporary traction:

Neurons that fire together wire together.

I’ve now seen this statement referred to in more than one book devoted to reflecting on the implications of the new neuroscience (it was quoted in the first chapter of Buddha’s Brain, and it was also alluded to in Steven Johnson’s 2005 book, Mind Wide Open). It seems to me that this idea should be taken seriously by those who want to obtain at least some semblance of control over the trajectory of their mental health and emotional states.

And what kind of meditation was being practiced by the study participants? The New York Times reports that it was Buddhist vipassana. This is a form of meditation in which you bring calm attention to whatever is going on around you or in you. In other words, you’re in the present moment and “notice what you notice” (the clouds overhead, a thought that drifts through your mind, your inhalations and exhalations, a burning stick of incense, the discomfort in your bottom while sitting, etc).

Or, to put it another way, you say ah so when you notice the uncomfortable asshole:

Britta Hölzel, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and the study’s lead author, said the participants practiced mindfulness meditation, a form of meditation that was introduced in the United States in the late 1970s. It traces its roots to . . . Buddhist techniques . . . “The main idea is to use different objects to focus one’s attention, and it could be a focus on sensations of breathing, or emotions or thoughts, or observing any type of body sensations,” she said. “But it’s about bringing the mind back to the here and now, as opposed to letting the mind drift.” Generally the meditators are seated upright on a chair or the floor and in silence, although sometimes there might be a guide leading a session, Dr. Hölzel said.

I’ll close this post with what might seem to be a bizarre observation (and maybe it is bizarre). I’ve been reading physicist Brian Greene’s extraordinary book on parallel universes and it occurs to me that, on a many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, the results of this meditation study make sense: if your brain is, indeed, malleable and you try to get into a habit of spending thirty minutes a day doing any specific activity firing neurons together in a particular pattern, the quantum probability increases that you will actually find yourself, 30 days later, in a world where your brain did in fact come into that pattern. (The many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is all about the probability of finding outcomes one way and not another, and of actually realizing all of them.) The moment you set out on a goal, perhaps you start loading the quantum dice toward actually finding your conscious self, a few weeks later, in one of those many quantum worlds where you’re doing meditation or running or losing weight—and looking fabulous.

Okay, it’s a bit of a New Agey thought, but it’s just a suggestion. Thomas Aquinas meets Schroedinger’s Cat: your habits today become your most likely conscious habitation tomorrow.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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16 Responses to Neurons That Fire Together Wire Together: The New York Times Says 8 Weeks of Meditation, 30 Minutes a Day, May Change the Brain

  1. Colin Hutton says:

    Articles that start with “Scientists say …….” should be treated with suspicion. If it then transpires that the ‘scientists’ referred to are psychologists and/or psychiatrists, that suspicion should crystallise into a complete suspension of belief. They have barely any more credibility as ‘scientists’ than have sociologists.

    Colin.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Colin,

    You make a good point, but I think the full context of this particular article is that neuroscientists are saying this.

    —Santi

    • Colin Hutton says:

      But the lead author is a psychologist! And the description of this ‘Vipassana’ sounds just like ‘Transcendental Meditation’. Even now (40 years later) I wonder at the naivety that allowed me to pay good money to take up TM at 25. (Although I did quit within months)

      A “modest” 30 minutes a day commitment is a not inconsiderable percentage of one’s actual available discretionary time. Not to be lightly undertaken. It would be relevant to know (amongst a host of other things) whether the research was rigorous enough to have assigned the control group alternative activities (new to them) such as reading a novel, going for a walk, listening to serious music. Probably just as mind-improving as your “ah so” example!

      Colin

      • santitafarella says:

        Colin,

        You’re certainly right. I need to look into this some more. But it seems like almost a contemporary commonplace among neuroscientists that neurons that fire together wire together, and that any persistant habit is going to start taking on brain wiring reinforcements. (How fast and how thoroughgoing, however, is another matter.)

        —Santi

    • Anonymous says:

      A neuro*psychologist* first put forth this idea. Check the background before you write off all psychologists..

      • Colin Hutton says:

        What is a “neuro psychologist”; to which idea are you referring; what is/was his/her name?

        Colin

      • Mike says:

        Here’s a bit of back ground information for you to delve into Colin. The term “neuroplasticity.” in the scientific community refers the brain’s ability to act and react in ever-changing ways. This special, often taken-for-granted, characteristic allows the brain’s estimated 100 billion neurons (a.k.a. gray matter), to constantly lay down new pathways for neural communication and to rearrange existing ones throughout life, thereby aiding the processes of learning, memory, and adaptation through experience.

        Here’s the practical and paradoxically transcendent magic of it Collin, we can always change! obviously for the worse if we reinforce neurons firing together subsequently wiring together, with negative behavior, thoughts, and emotions, but infinitely more attractive to me, for the better as we create a vast array of “positive” neural associations between thought, emotion, and action. So a deep belief in impermanence, being-in-the-moment(a.k.a. mindfulness), focusing on a task(could just be simple breathing), thought, or feeling, in the most aware, nonjudgemental way, in its respectively most conducive setting of support, will almost inevitably change your brain for the better, change your mind for the better, bring contentment, acceptance, mastery, and dare I say, happiness into your life…
        Some references to check out- http://openwetware.org/wiki/BIO254:Wire_Together
        http://www.neurosciencemarketing.com/blog/articles/neurons-fire-together.htm
        http://rightmindprograms.wordpress.com/2010/03/22/neurons-that-wire-together-fire-together/

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  6. colinhutton says:

    Mike : I think you are misunderstanding my point. I am not challenging the fact of neuroplasticity. (I have read several convincing reports over the years – as well as the book by Doidge “The Brain That Changes Itself” : which I don’t recommend!). Nor am I challenging the findings of the effect of meditation on the amygdala and hippocampus areas, nor, even, the inference that those effects are, in turn, beneficial.

    What I am challenging is the researchers using a group who ‘did not meditate’ as a control, and then arriving at a conclusion that meditating for 30 minutes a day is a good use of a person’s available time. It seems to me that a range of possible activities, NOVEL TO MEMBERS OF THE CONTROL GROUP, might have produced equivalent outcomes to those associated with the meditating. And I can think of dozens of activities, that I don’t regularly make time for, which would be infinitely preferable to spending time contemplating my navel while saying ah so.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      That’s the existential dilemma, isn’t it? There are many ways we might spend our time profitably.

      Now choose.

      —Santi

  7. colinhutton says:

    At 2.15am – to listen to more Bach, or get some needed sleep.

  8. Mike says:

    Hey Collin. I understand your qualms with “the study” presented in this article. Its not very scientific. I don’t however see a problem with having a control group “does not meditate”. My problem is the arbitrary assignment of 30 minutes of meditation. It really isn’t a very “modest” amount of time to meditate as the author suggests. I meditate roughly 10 to 15 minutes a day, intermittently, or you can say casually. The periods of time I did go 10 to 20 minutes daily showed a noticeable change in my overall demeanor, including less irritability, less anxiety, and more patience. i wouldn’t say happiness, but added sense of calm. But my experiences are obviously purely anecdotal, not scientific.

    Here’s what they could have done to make it resemble more of an experimental design:
    -the control is fine to me, the confound variables as you suggested are many, but you need a control. perhaps use the same group doing their regular activities for a given time span, than meditating for the same give time span, comparing and contrasting brain activity (intrasubject). the meditation period must obviously come second.
    -or have your control group, have a group that meditates 10 minutes/day, one that meditates 20 min/day, and one that meditates 30 min/day. In other words, extend the independent variable of meditating into sub IVs.
    -also you can have the experimental groups using different say, Buddhist meditation techniques. Independent Variable with time and technique. It would be complicated but something like this:
    IV1- med technique 1, 10 min IV2- med tech 1, 20 min IV3 – med tech 1, 30 min
    IV4- med tech 2, 10 min IV5- med tech 2, 20 min,…etc…
    A total of 9 IVs…my experimental psych chops are a little rusty, but I hope you get the hang.
    There are many other studies related to meditation and the amygdala out there that are more scientific. There was actually one that the Times featured in an article about 9 years ago having to do with Tibetan monks I believe.

    I am reading “The Brain That Changes Itself” right now! Why don’t you recommend it?

    • colinhutton says:

      Mike – Hi. Even though I don’t have a significant quarrel with most of the details of what you say in your several responses, I find myself unpersuaded. Perhaps we are to some degree, ‘talking past each other’? Trying a different tack, how about the following:

      Assume that 90 hours of meditation over the next 6 months will bring me additional measures of “contentment, acceptance, mastery and happiness”. Sounds like a good thing – but is it? It brings me closer to the condition of the well-fed cat which is sleeping opposite me as I write – is that a good thing? In the same vein, I have visited India (admittedly only once, and briefly) and could find nothing admirable in the culture or any of its manifestations. Had Marx visited he would surely have included meditation in his famous dictum!

      Alternatively, I could spend that 90 hours reading Nietzsche, Feynman (but not Doidge*!) and working thru the moves of the Fischer/Spassky games in Reykjavik! Quite likely that would reduce whatever measures of contentment etc. that I currently enjoy, at the same time, however, further distancing me from the cat.

      You get my drift, I’m sure.

      *Doidge’s book: It was a while ago I read it. Very irritating style and content mostly anecdotal. I remember one section, for typical example, starting something like : “Mikey is a 7-year old with red hair and freckles who likes to play little league on Sundays…………” I absorb and retain this, pro tem, assuming it (or a coded message that he is Caucasian of Celtic origins!) will bear some relevance to Mikey’s syndrome, or whatever. It doesn’t, and I am duly very irritated; which shifts this garbage into what is already (at my age) overloaded long-term memory.

      If I wanted human-interest stuff I would go read novels, which I gave up doing 10 years ago. A physicist author, describing the detection of Higgs’ boson, for example, would, unlike so many psychologist/psychiatrists, have the modesty and good sense to leave the description of the Alpine view from his Cern laboratory to a painter or a poet!

      In short, condensed from, say, 300 to 50 pages, the book could have covered all that was of any substance or interest.

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