Meditation, prayer, religion and other means of nurturing our spirit and its affect on Neurogenesis are often overlooked by scientific studies.
However, Herbert Benson put meditation and its affect research on the map. He investigated a type of mantra meditation called Transcendental Meditation and discovered that it activated the parasympathetic nervous system in the human body and brought about stress relief and relaxation. He summarized his findings in 1975 with a book ‘The Relaxation Response’ which sparked the interest in further mind-body research.
Following years saw researchers delving deeper into the area of spirituality and looking at the subject holistically we can say that there are several spiritual practices that are related to neurogenesis.
There are mindfulness practices (meditation) that revolve around concentration on consciousness itself rather than the contents, on a deeper awareness of our current state and the environment surrounding us. Some techniques achieve this by focusing attention on the sensations of breath, some achieve it by focusing on feelings and thoughts, and others do so by focusing on contents of consciousness (thoughts, feelings, sensations, images) allowing them to arise and pass away lightly. Throughout these techniques we learn to “be” in the current moment and to find the inner centre of peace while faced with hectic life.
Several impressive benefits have been discovered from the aforementioned mindfulness practices. Firstly, it increases the size of the hippocampus. It was found that grey matter increased in the hippocampus resulting in larger volumes globally, moreover, white matter had enhanced connectivity in the pathways, and as we know from our previous parts of the blog, the increase in size of the hippocampus is related to increased neurogenesis. What is even more surprising is that the increase in hippocampus size can be measured in people who practiced 30 minutes per day in a program as little as eight-weeks. One can imagine what great benefits long-term mindfulness practice can achieve.
Secondly, the practices proved to have a positive effect on our working memory. Going back to our previous Delve post surrounding the Mind, we discussed that working memory is extremely difficult to increase on its own and different tasks need to be employed to see improvement globally, however, mindfulness and meditation has been shown to enhance working memory as a whole as well as it brings improvement to autobiographical memory.
Devotion and compassion is another spiritual practice distinguished and investigated by researchers. At the centre of this discipline lies love, devotion, compassion, and empathy for all living beings. The techniques of these practices do vary: some may focus on love for a divine being (Divine Mother, baby Krishna, Prophets etc.), others may focus on love for oneself, love for friends, family, strangers, and finally to the entire world. However, the end goal is similar across them - love and feelings of gratitude, devotion, and appreciation that are hallmarks of spiritual environment.
There is little surprise that these feelings provide a boost to neurogenesis. In our previous parts we have discussed that love releases hormone oxytocin that stimulates neurogenesis. Moreover, it has been shown that meditation increases melatonin levels, while feelings of devotion and appreciation can increase the levels of youth hormone DHEA. Through these three well known hormonal stimulants, which are released during spiritual practices, we increase neurogenesis and our well-being.
The spiritual world revolves around a deeper understanding of ourselves, focus on being at the present time, gratitude of what we receive, and compassion and love to others. By engaging our spirit not only we increase neurogenesis but also help ourselves to reduce stress, anxiety, increase positive feelings, and learn to be grateful, compassionate, devoted.