Lawyers Who Meditate Have Larger Brains, Less Depression

According to the American Bar Association, as many as 20 percent of American lawyers abuse alcohol or other mind-altering substances.1

Even more frightening, male lawyers between the ages of 20 and 64 are more than twice as likely to die from suicide than their counterparts in other occupations, according to a frequently-cited study by the National Institute for Safety and Health conducted two decades ago.

In 1996, lawyers overtook dentists as the profession with the highest rate of suicide.2

Men are not alone in these harrowing statistics. An ABA Young Lawyers Division survey indicated that 41 percent of female attorneys were unhappy with their jobs.3

And, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that lawyers of both genders lead the nation with the highest incidence of depression in more than 100-surveyed occupations.4

Why are so many lawyers unhappy?

This is not the first time the question has been posed.

In fact, a recent article titled, “The Depressed Lawyer,” written by a clinical psychologist, addressed just this question. He also discussed practical advice for managing stress in the legal environment.

One practical tip he did not mention, however, has scientists more optimistic about the future of stress and age reduction among legal minds: meditation.

It turns out that lawyers who meditate—no, not mediate—boast increased thickness in parts of the brain that deal with attention and processing sensory input.

What does that mean exactly? People who meditate grow larger brains, specifically in areas important for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being.

Thus, meditation leads to an improved ability to deal with highly emotional or stressful events. Something that may (literally) give unhappy lawyers some peace of mind.

In 2006, researchers at Harvard, Yale, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology produced the first real evidence, through studies of brain scans, that meditation can alter the physical structure of the human brain.

In one area of gray matter, the thickening of the human cortex (our “thinking caps”) became more pronounced in older patients who meditate. This section of the brain typically gets thinner with age.

“Our data suggest that one small bit of brain appears to have a slower rate of cortical thinning, so meditation may help slow some aspects of cognitive aging,” reports Sara Lazar, leader of the study and a psychologist at Harvard Medical School (via the Harvard Gazette).

“But it’s important to remember that monks and yogis suffer from the same ailments as the rest of us. They get old and die, too. However, they do claim to enjoy an increased capacity for attention and memory.”

Meditators in the study practiced Buddhist “insight meditation,” which concentrates on sounds and sensations—but not thinking or analysis about them. The study compared brain scans of 20 experienced meditators and 15 non-meditators, who came from a variety of careers in health care, journalism, and even law.

Study participants meditated an average of about 40 minutes a day, but for varying periods of time. For example, some had been meditating for just one year, others for decades.

Depth of the meditation was measured by the slowing of breathing rates, and the more deeply-involved the meditation, the greater change in brain structure.

“This strongly suggests that the differences in brain structure were caused by the meditation, rather than that differences in brain thickness got them into meditation in the first place,” Lazar concludes (via the Harvard Gazette).

Lazar, herself, practices insight meditation three times a week. Like most scientists who are also skeptics, she was unsure of the tangible benefits, at first, of meditation. Now, after ten years practicing, she explains, “I have definitely experienced beneficial changes.”

“It reduces stress [and] increases my clarity of thought and my tolerance for staying focused in difficult situations.”

It seems like meditation is a skill all lawyers should add to their repertoire, and, if meditation does, in fact, lead to increased concentration, memory, reverse aging, and stress reduction, you can anticipate a lot more “om”s in the courtroom than bad omens.

-WB

References:

  1. Jones, D. (2001). Career killers. In B.P. Crowley, & M.L. Winick (Eds.). A guide to the basic law practice. Alliance Press, 180-197.
  2. Greiner, M. (Sept, 1996). What about me? Texas Bar Journal.
  3. Moss, D.C. (Feb., 1991). Lawyer personality. ABA Journal, 34.
  4. Eaton, W.W. (1990). Occupations and the prevalence of major depressive disorder. Journal of Occupational Medicine, 32 (11), 1079-1087.

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