A mantra can be defined as a statement or a slogan that is frequently repeated, but in the Hindu religion, mantras are long sections of religious text that students memorize. The chanting of mantras, which are mostly written in Sanskrit, is a common practice in India and other countries.
While it's phenomenal to see hours of text being sung entirely from memory and it's a very moving part of the Hindu faith, it's also a stunning demonstration of brain power. Memorizing long passages looks easy, but it's quite a complicated task for the brain.
James Hartzell, a neuroscientist and post-doctoral researcher at the Basque Center on Cognition, the Brain and Language and he has spent years studying and translating Sanskrit texts, which can range from 40,000 to 100,000 words. Hartzell wanted to see if the "Sanskrit Effect" was demonstrable in a scientific study. He noticed that his work with Sanskrit seemed to improve his verbal memory skills and he wondered if the same happened to pandits (Sanskrit scholars) that had spent years memorizing the texts.
Hartzell and some colleagues formed a partnership between the University of Trento in Italy and a group of Vedic pandits from the Delhi area of India. The collaboration, dubbed The India-Trento Partnership for Advanced Research (ITPAR), published their study that used MRI scanning to look at the brains of the Sanskrit scholars to see if the years of training made any structural impact. As it happened, brain anatomy was very different in the pandits than it was in subjects who had not studied the ancient texts.
Hartzell wrote about the results in the Scientific American, how there was increased brain volume, stating, "Ten 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."
In addition to those findings, in the pandits who were part of the study, the area of the hippocampus was different. In the human brain, there are actually two hippocampi, one on the left and one on the right. The right side is more associated with patterns in memory, whether from sound, spatial environment or visual stimuli. The right hippocampi in the pandits were larger than the controls in 75% of the subjects. There was also cortical thickening in the right temporal cortex which is associated with speech and voice processing. Hartzell summarized the work, writing in his Scientific American blog post, "Our study was a first foray into imaging the brains of professionally trained Sanskrit pandits in India. Although this initial research, focused on an intergroup comparison of brain structure, could not directly address the Sanskrit effect question (that requires detailed functional studies with cross-language memorization comparisons, for which we are currently seeking funding), we found something specific about intensive verbal memory training. Does the pandits' substantial increase in the gray matter of critical verbal memory organs mean they are less prone to devastating memory pathologies such as Alzheimer's? We don't know yet."
The video below has more information, check it out. Could you memorize 100,000 words? Not many people could, but the possibilities of the brain are fascinating.