Yoga and Meditation Linked to Enhanced Brain Functionality

woman yoga mudra
Photo by Lulu Lovering

Lost your keys—again? You aren’t alone. After unknowingly dropping my keys in a return shipment, I (luckily!) received them in the mail a month later. But take heart, there may be hope for the absent-minded yogis among us. A recent study conducted by scientists at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) suggests that certain aspects of cognitive functioning (perception and comprehension abilities) and brain connectivity (the physiological patterns necessary for processing information) appear more robust among yogis and meditators compared to non-practitioners.

Despite a plethora of cultural messages to the contrary, growing older is not all downhill. Consider Angela Farmer, a thriving yogini in her seventies who embodies health and wisdom. Research indicates that we can build new habits and patterns through generation of new neurons, networks and pathways well into old age. Some research also suggests that meditation may play a beneficial role in slowing age-related decline in cognition and brain function, and that yoga may improve cognition and brain function in younger adults.

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The current MGH study is the first to examine the relation of yoga or meditation to fluid intelligence and brain connectivity in older adults. Fluid intelligence, the ability to think logically and solve problems in new situations, reaches its height in young adulthood before consistently declining thereafter. The researchers also examined resting state functional brain networks, referring to the level of connectivity within the brain that occurs when the brain is not engaged in a specific task (something impaired in Alzheimer’s patients and others with neurological disorders).

Several types of brain connectivity were examined, including integration (i.e., how well the neuronal networks in the brain are connected and communicate with each other) and resilience (i.e., how well a model of the brain functions when key communication points are removed, mimicking natural aging-related damage). Greater network integration is linked to an array of physical and mental benefits, while improved network resilience may be protective against the aging process and the development of related diseases such as Alzheimers.

Kripalu yoga practitioners, Vipassana meditation practitioners and non-practicing control subjects (47 in total) were matched demographically and did not differ on factors known to impact brain function (i.e., age, gender, handedness, education, crystallized intelligence, physical activity, and daily participation in reading, writing, and board/card game playing). All subjects received a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) brain scan and were tested for mindfulness, fluid/crystallized intelligence and cognitive functioning.

The researchers found less age-related cognitive decline (i.e., higher fluid intelligence), greater integration between brain networks, and greater resilience to simulated age-related damage in yoga and meditation practitioners, relative to the control group.

While these findings are encouraging, the subjects were only examined at one time point, so we cannot infer causality (i.e., rather than yoga or meditation practice, the observed outcomes may be attributable to other pre-existing attributes of yoga or meditation practitioners—such as healthy relationships, healthy diet, and so on—rather than the practices themselves). Still, the findings suggest that practicing yoga and meditation may have positive effects on cognitive function and brain connectivity.

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Have you noticed improvements in cognitive function (e.g., less forgetfulness, better focus) since taking up yoga or meditation practice?

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