It's never too late


IT TURNS OUT that you may be able to change your brain - by using it. Just think of the possibilities.

People with years of steady meditation training show much greater high-level brain activity than those with minimal training, according to a recent study comparing deeply trained Tibetan monks with Midwestern college students. Even when not meditating, the monks' brains were more clearly organized and showed more of the high-frequency activity, called gamma waves, associated with attention, working memory, learning, conscious perception and positive emotions --such as happiness.

The monks, whose average age was 49, had practiced meditation for 15 to 40 years. The students, whose average age was 21, had one week's training. While age is a factor, researchers say that hours of past meditation was the better predictor. Among the monks, those with more training showed more gamma wave activity. Most were off the chart, recording the highest levels of such activity ever reported.

Studies like this one take the discussion of benefits from meditation out of the realm of the spirit and into the realm of the physical.

People who stop doing harmful things to other parts of their bodies can feel the improvement, and in some cases reverse the damage. Eyesight often improves after retirement, when people don't need to squint at small type and the flat letters on computer screens all day. Losing the beer belly relieves pressure on many organs and, if it's done through exercise, strengthens the whole body. Even former smokers can rebuild lung tissue. So why not the brain?

Not the same, scientists used to say: Neurons are fixed into position early in life and don't change. But with clearer brain-scanners and more-sophisticated experiments over the past decade, researchers have turned that theory on its head. Now scientists recognize neuroplasticity, which is the brain's ongoing ability to reorganize functionally and structurally, strengthening or expanding pathways that are often used and shrinking those that are rarely used. Repeatedly practicing the clarinet, for example, can reinforce certain brain paths that help with tone, timing and sound.

And the meditation experiments take the idea a step further: They indicate that the brain can physically change based on only internal mental signals. It's certainly worth a try. All together now: "Ommm."

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