I have to think a lot of this may apply, as well, to the practice of contemplative prayer.
From the New York Times:
Over the December holidays, my husband went on a 10-day silent meditation retreat. Not my idea of fun, but he came back rejuvenated and energetic.
He said the experience was so transformational that he has committed to meditating for two hours a day, once in the morning and once in the evening, until the end of March. He’s running an experiment to determine whether and how meditation actually improves the quality of his life.
I’ll admit I’m a skeptic.
But now, scientists say that meditators like my husband may be benefiting from changes in their brains. The researchers report that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. The findings will appear in the Jan. 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.
M.R.I. brain scans taken before and after the participants’ meditation regimen found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress. A control group that did not practice meditation showed no such changes…
…Britta Hölzel, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and the study’s lead author, said the participants practiced mindfulness meditation, a form of meditation that was introduced in the United States in the late 1970s. It traces its roots to the same ancient Buddhist techniques that my husband follows.
Ultimately, Dr. Hölzel said she and her colleagues would like to demonstrate how meditation results in definitive improvements in people’s lives.
“A lot of studies find that it increases well-being, improves quality of life, but it’s always hard to determine how you can objectively test that,” she said. “Relatively little is known about the brain and the psychological mechanisms about how this is being done.”
In a 2008 study published in the journal PloS One, researchers found that when meditators heard the sounds of people suffering, they had stronger activation levels in their temporal parietal junctures, a part of the brain tied to empathy, than people who did not meditate.
“They may be more willing to help when someone suffers, and act more compassionately,” Dr. Hölzel said.