Meditation is more than a stress reducer—it can physically change your brain

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

This story is part of an ongoing series on Exceptional Humans and the scientists studying them to help us all benefit from their superhuman abilities.

Susan Morgan and her husband Bill spent four years of their lives in silence, living at the Forest Refuge Center for experienced meditators in Barre, Massachusetts. 

People have been meditating for millennia, but in the past few decades, mindfulness has exploded in popularity among westerners who practice it non-religiously, for wellness.  

Susan Morgan has been meditating since 1992, and Bill since 1971. More than a decade ago, they both participated in a study led by Dr. Sara Lazar at Massachusetts General Hospital, who found that meditation doesn’t just change your perspective or lessen your anxiety—it physically changes your brain.

Since then, Lazar and her colleagues have shown that practicing mindfulness for just a few months can yield many similar benefits: lowering stress, and increasing gray matter in those parts of the brain involved in memory, compassion, and creativity.

The research’s success hasn’t been lost on Silicon Valley. Companies are increasingly monetizing the fast-acting benefits of meditation, inflating mindfulness to a billion-dollar industry within the past few years. With the growth, though, has come some pushback: How much can we realistically expect from mindfulness? And are apps actually helping us, or are they a distraction?

In episode four of our video series Exceptional Humans, we go to Boston to see how the Morgans have reorganized their lives around mindfulness, and to meet with Lazar for a first-hand account of where her research is headed. We also travel to Santa Monica to visit Dr. Megan Jones-Bell, chief science officer of mindfulness app Headspace, which claims nearly 60 million members worldwide, to learn how a short, daily mindfulness practice can affect us.