In the last few years there has been an increase in research and attention around neuroplasticity. This includes our ability to change the way our brains process and perform, not just in our youth, but throughout our lives. Turns out this has a lot to do with leadership—for the young and the not so young. Moreover, there is something you can do about it if you’re “not so young.”
Inc. Magazine summarized an exciting new set of studies from Neuroscientist Sara Lazar, of Mass General and Harvard Medical School. While training for the Boston Marathon, she developed an injury. Her physical therapist told her to stretch; she took up yoga.
What followed is a story I often hear from folks who are new to this work: “I went to yoga for one thing, and turned out I got a bunch of other bonuses I hadn’t expected. Lazar had this experience herself, noticing that in addition to stretching, she felt better, calmer, more compassionate. She “looked up the scientific literature on mindfulness meditation (a category into which yoga can fall). She found the ever-increasing body of evidence that shows that meditation decreases stress, depression, and anxiety, reduces pain and insomnia, and increases quality of life.”
By now she decided to study meditation on her own. “In her first study, she looked at long-term meditators (those with seven to nine years of experience) versus a control group. The results showed that those with a strong meditation background had increased gray matter in several areas of the brain, including the auditory and sensory cortex, as well as insula and sensory regions.”
“However, the neuroscientists also found that the meditators had more gray matter in another brain region, this time linked to decision-making and working memory: the frontal cortex. In fact, while most people see their cortexes shrink as they age, 50-year-old meditators in the study had the same amount of gray matter as those half their age!
Lazar and her team wanted to make sure this wasn’t because the long-term meditators had more gray matter to begin with, so they conducted a second study. In it, they put people with no experience with meditation into an eight-week mindfulness program.”
“The results? Even just eight weeks of meditation changed people’s brains for the better. There was thickening in several regions of the brain, including the left hippocampus (involved in learning, memory, and emotional regulation); the TPJ (involved in empathy and the ability to take multiple perspectives); and a part of the brainstem called the pons (where regulatory neurotransmitters are generated).”
Plus, the brains of the new meditators saw shrinkage of the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with fear, anxiety, and aggression. This reduction in size of the amygdala correlated to reduced stress levels in those participants.”
The big question is: “How long do you have to meditate to see such results? In the study, participants were told to meditate for 40 minutes a day, but the average ended up being 27 minutes a day. Several other studies suggest that you can see significant positive changes in just 15 to 20 minutes a day”
This data offers another reason for us to learn and practice habits that support effectiveness as leaders.