MRI scan of the brains of pandits revealed increases in gray matter density and cortical thickness in language, memory and visual systems.
For thousands of years, our ancient Sanskrit texts, especially the Vedas, comprising of thousands of words, were kept alive only through memorisation, and transferred from one generation to the next by speech. The tradition of oral learning and recitation is perhaps as old as the oldest cradle of Indian civilisation itself. Why did India’s ancient scholars preferred the oral way instead of writing it all down for everyone’s convenience? Did they believe memorising and reciting ancient Sanskrit mantras helped improve their memory? If they did, they were likely spot on.
The results of structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) show that memorising Sanskrit mantras can increase size of brain regions associated with cognitive function.
A team of scientists from University of Trento (Italy) - Hartzell JF, Davis B, Melcher D, Miceli G, Jovicich J, Nath T, Singh NC, Hasson U - studied a group of verbal memory specialists (professional Vedic pandits) to determine whether intensive oral text memory is associated with structural features of hippocampal and lateral-temporal regions implicated in language processing. They used MRI at India’s National Brain Research Centre to scan the brains of pandits and conducted structural analysis of gray matter density, cortical thickness, local gyrification, and white matter structure, relative to matched controls.
Findings of these scientists confirmed what these Sanskrit pandits probably believed for millennia. They found increases in gray matter density and cortical thickness in language, memory and visual systems, including i) bilateral lateral temporal cortices and ii) the anterior cingulate cortex and the hippocampus, regions associated with long and short-term memory.
James Hartzell, one of the researchers conducting the study, explains that numerous regions in the brains of the pandits were dramatically larger than those of controls, with over 10 per cent 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,” he adds.
Additionally, they also found that the region of the brain that plays a vital role in both short and long-term memory, i.e. right hippocampus had more gray matter than controls across nearly 75 per cent of this subcortical structure. Though both left and right hippocampus share many memory functions between them, it is the latter that is more specialised for sound, spatial or visual patters. Hartzell says it makes perfect sense because “accurate recitation requires highly precise sound pattern encoding and reproduction.”
However, from the results one shouldn’t conclude that only memorising and reciting Sanskrit mantras alone can result into affects shown by Hartzell et al. The results only confirm that intensive verbal memory training helps. Whether this applies to languages other than Sanskrit is a matter of further research.