Want to be a calm Buddha with a highly attentive and awake “diamond mind?” New research suggests that maybe you should get out from under that Bodhi tree you’re sitting under and put on some running shoes instead, for exercise, it appears, is the new zafu (or ought to be).
Because it stimulates the brain to make neurons that aid not just emotions, memory, and thinking, but also the reduction of anxiety. This seemingly paradoxical finding is being reported by Gretchen Reynolds in the Health Section of The New York Times today:
[R]esearchers at Princeton University recently discovered that exercise creates vibrant new brain cells — and then shuts them down when they shouldn’t be in action.
In other words, exercise does double duty, both stimulating attention and calming it, putting a person in a state that Buddhists would tend to consider ideal (and sometimes attempt to achieve through caffeinated tea drinking). Here’s the NYT again:
Studies in animals have shown that physical exercise creates excitable neurons in abundance, especially in the hippocampus, a portion of the brain known to be involved in thinking and emotional responses.
But exercise also has been found to reduce anxiety in both people and animals.
One way researchers discovered this was to study mice:
[The Princeton researchers] gathered adult mice, injected them with a substance that marks newborn cells in the brain, and for six weeks, allowed half of them to run at will on little wheels, while the others sat quietly in their cages.
Afterward, the scientists determined each group’s baseline nervousness. Given access to cages with open, well-lighted areas, as well as shadowy corners, the running mice were more willing to cautiously explore and spend time in open areas, an indication that they were more confident and less anxious than the sedentary animals.
It appears that the trick behind exercise’s calming powers is in the making of neurons that produce GABA neurotransmitters:
The runners’ brains […] had a notable number of new neurons specifically designed to release the neurotransmitter GABA, which inhibits brain activity, keeping other neurons from firing easily. In effect, these are nanny neurons, designed to shush and quiet activity in the brain.
In the runners’ brains, there were large new populations of these cells in a portion of the hippocampus, the ventral region, associated with the processing of emotions. (The rest of the hippocampus, the dorsal region, is more involved with thinking and memory.)
And here’s the lead researcher:
What all of this suggests, says Elizabeth Gould, director of the Gould Lab at Princeton, who wrote the paper with her graduate student Timothy Schoenfeld, now at the National Institute of Mental Health, and others, “is that the hippocampus of runners is vastly different from that of sedentary animals. Not only are there more excitatory neurons and more excitatory synapses, but the inhibitory neurons are more likely to become activated, presumably to dampen the excitatory neurons, in response to stress.”
So I guess the take-home message is this: if you ever take up a meditation practice, combine it with lots of exercise.