Taking up meditation while sheltering-in-place may not only help you cope with the stress of the coronavirus pandemic, it may even keep your brain from aging.
A recently pubished 18-year analysis of the mind of a Buddhist monk by the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found daily, intensive meditation slowed the monk's brain aging by as much as eight years when compared to a control group.
The project started in the 1990s with neuroscientist Richard Davidson's relationship with the Dalai Lama. Davidson started making connections between positive emotions and brain health, which jump-started research for the study.
"[The Dalai Lama] was really encouraging me to take the practices from this tradition and investigate them with the tools of modern science," said Davidson, founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds. "And if we find through these investigations that these practices are valuable to then disseminate them widely."
The study began with a Buddhist monk
Using MRI and a machine learning framework which estimates "brain-age" from brain imaging, Davidson and lead scientist Nagesh Adluru studied the mind of Tibetan Buddhist meditation master Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche over the course of 18 years.
The goal, Davidson said, was to find out whether there was a difference in the rate of aging between the brains of seasoned meditation masters compared to those who were novice practitioners. Rinpoche was first scanned in 2002 at the age of 27. At the time, he had already completed nine years of meditation retreats. He was scanned again at the respective ages of 30, 32 and 41 years old.
The last time he was scanned, he had just returned from a four-and-a-half-year wandering retreat, and his brain was calculated to be 33-years-old, eight years younger than his biological age.
The researchers compared Rinpoche's aging brain to a control group and his appeared to age much slower than the general focus group.
The results could have lasting implications on health
The magnitude of the effect was pronounced even with a margin of error that is plus or minus two to three years, Davidson said.
"If these effects accumulate over time, we think there will be very important health and well-being implications."
Everyone, especially now amid the coronavirus pandemic, can benefit from meditation because it is designed to remind us of our own basic goodness, Davidson said.
"I think what is exciting is the invitation that we can impact our own brain ... and change the rate at which it ages through engaging in practices that are nourishing and helpful for our well-being."
The researchers said they are excited to see how Rinpoche's brain will continue to develop, and how this data can help improve overall well-being.