James Hartzell wrote a piece for Scientific American earlier this week delving into the “Sanskrit Effect”—the name for what MRI scans show as the increase of the size of brain regions associated with cognitive function due to memorizing ancient mantras.
Hartzell, who spent many years studying and translating the language, noticed that the more he worked with the language, the better his verbal memory became. Other researchers and translators spoke of their own cognitive improvements, and there developed the question:
Was there actually a language-specific “Sanskrit effect” as claimed by the tradition?
Pandits, the traditional scholars of the language, master a variety of Sanskrit poetry and prose text. One of India’s most ancient Sanskrit texts, the Shukla Yajurveda, takes six hours to completely recite. The tradition says that exactly memorizing and reciting the texts, or mantras, enhances memory and thinking.
Hartzell then entered the cognitive neuroscience doctoral program at the University of Trento in Italy, and took the opportunity to start investigating his question. He wanted to discover how intense verbal memory training can affect the physical structure of the brain, and through the India-Trento Partnership for Advanced Research, the scientist recruited pandits from schools in the Delhi region. Once they arrived in Italy, they received MRIs, and so did a control group matched for age, gender, right-or-left-handedness, eye-dominance, and multilingualism.
What we discovered from the structural MRI scanning was remarkable. Numerous regions in the brains of the pandits were dramatically larger than those of controls, with over 10 percent more grey matter across both cerebral hemispheres, and substantial increases in cortical thickness. Although the exact cellular underpinnings of gray matter and cortical thickness measures are still under investigation, increases in these metrics consistently correlate with enhanced cognitive function.
Hartzell’s study resulted in some incredible results, which you can delve farther into in the original article. One of the most interesting questions that’s come of his study is whether or not the pandits’ increase of gray matter in areas of the brain important to memory means they are less likely to develop subsequent memory diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. They can’t answer that yet, but anecdotal reports from Ayurvedic doctors in India suggest the possibility. This then asks the question, will “exercising” the brain help those at risk for cognitive impairment, or even prevent its onset?
Can’t wait to find out!
Featured image via the Association for Yoga and Meditation.