On January 28, 2000, a research team from the London College Institute of Neurology led by Irish researcher Leonor Maguire presented the results of research that would open the door to a new era in the world of brain research.
The object of study: London taxi drivers. The premise of the experiment What happens in the brains of taxi drivers after years of memorizing streets, addresses, and different routes?
The questions to be answered Will the brain stays the same, as was thought at the time, or would this continued mental training generate measurable changes? And the most important question is, could this information be used to improve the health of the population?
The results would change forever the idea we have of the brain, its capabilities, and above all its possibilities. The brains of 30 taxi drivers, 15 novices, and 15 experts were analyzed. MRIs showed that the area called the posterior hippocampus, linked to spatial memory, was larger in expert taxi drivers than in novices.
The concept of brain plasticity had just been born.
This new concept opened a whole series of unknowns for researchers. And immediately some became interested in the “Olympians of meditation.” Tai chi masters, martial artists, and Buddhist monks were put to the test under the scrutiny of Western science.
If taxi drivers had experienced such important changes in their brains as a result of their daily activity, what would happen to those who, deliberately, trained their brains to improve their abilities?
Thus the number of randomized controlled trials regarding mindfulness practices jumped from 11 in the period 2004-2006, to an incredible 216 from 2013 to 2015.
The happiest man in the world
The results of these investigations were even more surprising than those of the London taxi drivers. Especially the well-known research by Dr. Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin who introduced the world to the French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, who would be renamed the happiest man in the world.
The results showed that while Ricard practiced meditation his brain developed a higher than normal activity in the left prefrontal cortex. This would indicate a great predisposition for well-being, positive emotions, and stress management. Matthieu Ricard gave results far above what was thought possible.
Science thus proved that those people who trained their brains in a certain way find it much easier to be happy than the rest.
The brain in the gym
Sara Lazard of Harvard University also studies the impact of meditative practices on the brain. In one of their investigations, Lazard and his team discovered that long-distance meditators have thicker brain regions associated with attention, interoception, and sensory processing than sporadic meditators or non-meditators.
These data provided new evidence. Certain areas of the brain can develop throughout life if we practice certain types of exercises. Just like the muscles in the gym.
Madhav Goyal is a researcher at Johns Hopkins University (USA). Goyal reviewed 47 studies with 3,515 people. Their review concluded that meditative techniques can moderately help the recovery of patients affected by depression and anxiety.
At the moment there are no completely conclusive results. For this reason, research is continuing at the University of Wisconsin (USA), Harvard (USA), Maastricht (Netherlands), and Leipzig (Germany) to understand the short and long-term effects of meditation on the brain and how This can help citizens to improve their quality of life.