Neuroscience and the ‘Sanskrit Effect’

Neuroscience and the ‘Sanskrit Effect’
Science Proves the Power of Chanting

Many of us have heard the Gyuto Monks of Tibet. With their extraordinary chanting and the low throaty drone of ancient sacred texts, they have kept audiences in the West spellbound with their long, careful and accurate recitations of potent Tibetan Buddhist texts. Sitting in their presence, you feel clarity and a potent spiritual transference of energy and healing. The Buddhist tradition stems from India and the sacred language of Sanskrit. While Tibetan Buddhists have a rich chanting tradition, in India, this age-old tradition goes back even further.

Sanskrit scholars in India learn to chant ancient texts from a tender age. They chant simple mantras, Sanskrit poetry, and prose, along with memorising and chanting the most ancient Sanskrit texts, including the Shukla Yajurveda, which takes six hours to chant. While those listening to these chantings receive the gift of the sacred texts they are sharing with us, the chanting of long texts does, in fact, have an amazing effect on the brain.

Neuroscience shows how rigorous memorising can help the brain. The term the ‘Sanskrit Effect’ was coined by neuroscientist James Hartzell, who studied 21 professionally qualified Sanskrit pandits. He discovered that memorising Vedic mantras increases the size of brain regions associated with cognitive function, including short and long-term memory. This finding corroborates the beliefs of the Indian tradition which holds that memorising and reciting mantras enhances memory and thinking.

An Unexpected Discovery…

Dr. Hartzell, a Sanskrit devotee and postdoctoral researcher at Spain’s Basque Centre on Cognition, Brain and Language, spent many years studying and translating Sanskrit and became fascinated by its impact on the brain.

I noticed that the more Sanskrit I studied and translated, the better my verbal memory seemed to become. Fellow students and teachers often remarked on my ability to exactly repeat lecturers’ own sentences when asking them questions in class. Other translators of Sanskrit told me of similar cognitive shifts.

India’s Vedic Sanskrit pandits train for years to orally memorise and exactly recite 3,000-year old oral texts ranging from 40,000 to over 100,000 words. We wanted to find out how such intense verbal memory training affects the physical structure of their brains.

Dr. Hartzell’s research is the first study to examine the brains of Sanskrit scholars. Using structural Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) at India’s National Brain Research Centre, they scanned the brains of 21 Sanskrit pandits and 21 control subjects.

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 grey matter and cortical thickness measures are still under investigation, increases in these metrics consistently correlate with enhanced cognitive function.

He reports that the right hippocampus of the scholars, a region that plays a vital role in short and long-term memory, and is specialised for patterns, such as sound, spatial and visual patterns, had more grey matter than the brains of the control subjects. The right temporal cortex, associated with speech prosody and voice identity, was also substantially thicker.

Chanting improves brain performanceRegions in the pandits’ brains were dramatically larger than those of controls. Image: Natasha Connell.

Past Studies

Dr. Hartzell is not sure whether the effect relates particularly to the Sanskrit language and plans to conduct further research. The power of sound and chanting is becoming widely documented, and even short chants have an energising and healing effect on the body and mind of those who are chanting sacred mantras or verses. Interestingly, fifty years ago, a French scientist noted that Christian monks who chanted the Gregorian Chants have exceptional memories.

In 1967, Alfred Tomatis, a French physician, psychologist, and ear specialist, studied the effect of chanting on Benedictine monks who had been part of a tradition with a strict schedule of daily chanting of up to eight hours a day. When a new Abbott changed this schedule, cutting out the chanting, the monks became tired and lethargic, even though they were getting extra sleep. In fact, the more sleep they got, the more tired they were. Alfred Tomatis believed that the chanting was energising their brains and bodies, so he reintroduced the chanting and the monks were soon full of energy again.

Dr. Hartzell’s recent study raises the question of whether this kind of memorisation of ancient texts could be helpful in reducing the devastating illness of Alzheimer’s and other memory affecting diseases. Apparently, Ayurvedic doctors from India suggest it is the case and future studies will be conducted, along with more research into Sanskrit.

While we all know the benefits of mindfulness and meditation practices, the findings of Dr. Hartzell are truly dramatic. In a world of shrinking attention spans, where we are flooded with information daily, and children display a range of attention deficit disorders, ancient Indian wisdom has much to teach the West. Even introducing small amounts of chanting and recitation could have an amazing effect on all of our brains.

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Velandy Manohar
5 years ago

Namaste: I am very delighted to read the intriguing information. I am very happy to see the prayer to Mother Saraswati written in the Devanagari script of Sanskrit. I am providing an English Transliteration. It is very difficult to achieve a good facsimile and impossible to transmit the prosody and convery the cadence. I chant three times a day – a collection of prayers and one specific Upanishad from Krishna Yajur Veda in detail. I believe the statements about the changes in energy and stamina that was noticed among monks. I am in my seventies- I can sit cross legged and chant for a long time at the temple or adopt tree pose and with a Walking Cane chant scripture with my eyes closed. i alternate the legs that is load bearing. I chant inaudibly while walking or slow jogging on the track. I switch directions every two rounds[800 meters] to ease the load stress on my inner leg. I can keep going a long time in my younger days I could run/ jog or walk briskly 25 times around the track in about 60-70 minutes. it especially fun when it is drizzling and especially great if Rainbows some times double break out or if the sky is lear see circling eagles or scores of wild gesse doing their stuff as a great flock. I was amazed how good they are in posting sentries two or three necks are straight while 20 are bent and the birds are feeding. They make certain noises- their own mantras as I approach different sectors of the great flock in the middle of the large field. They become quieter and quieter just as my mind gets quieter and my movements steady and regular. I remember how the Geese alerted me and other geese with a different pitch and cadence of their calls when my son – little boy had wandered away towards them and the geese noticed a fox in bushes nearby. I was able to get to the spot and bring back my son. Over the years I have noticed different aspects of natures and creatures great and small have their own sound systems like the dolphins and whales, Kites,Sparrows, Falcons, Hawks and Eagles to manage their social needs and to gather food, procreate and threats from the environment.
We talk about Sabda Brahman and Nada Brahman when we discuss chanting OM and mantras like the Gayatri Mantra or the Veda and prayers to Deities and Intercessory prayers. I always begin and end prayers especially in the public domain and if the prayers are offered audibly.
Om Saha Nau-Avatu | Saha Nau Bhunaktu | Saha Viiryam Karava-Avahai |
Tejasvi Nau-Adhii-Tam-Astu Maa Vidviss-Aavahai |
Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih ||
Om, May God Protect us Both (the Teacher and the Student), May God Nourish us Both,
May we Work Together with Energy and Vigor, May our Study be Enlightening, not giving rise to Hostility,
Om, Peace, Peace, Peace.

Yo bro
5 years ago

Gr8 info

5 years ago

In French school we used to memorize entire pages of literature of Molière, Shakespeare, etc, and had to recite them in front of the whole class. Great exercise since I still remember 54 years later.

5 years ago

Interesting- need more discourse

Pankaj Gupta
5 years ago

Sanskrit is most powerful & Richest language of world … and origin of max language in World in India 5-10 language are Devoloped from Sanskrit Language itself …. Originated from India proud of it

Pankaj Gupta
5 years ago

Extraordinary i also practice Chanting one hrs a day for mahamrityunjay jap & Ganesh Mantra and one more daily for one hour it has my increased my energy level by at least 50-100% … Mantra chanting increases your concentration level as well as memory power

My Practical Experience in my own life

Suresh Raghuraman
5 years ago

I Agree based on my own experience in chanting, Thanks

Suresh Raghuraman
5 years ago

I agree based on my own experience in chanting. Thanks for the article

5 years ago

every Language is special for its speakers. Absurd to create conflicts using language. It is not the lang, it is the content what u are communicating to others and make them understand it without ambiguity.

Shreeprakash Palkar.
5 years ago

I want to subscribe

Shreeprakash Palkar.
5 years ago

Can I become a regular reader to such articles? My I’d. [email protected]

Umesh Kale
5 years ago

Sanskrit language is undoubtedly a great language.
It is nothing but science of sound, having extraordinary capability to make poetries since sequence of words are not important. Moreover, the grammar is systematic in such a way that there is no chance of committing any mistakes if you understand it well,without any ambiguities. Thanks to Panini the great, an ancient Indian sage.

5 years ago


DrA K Pandey
5 years ago

very well & informative. thanx

Amal Fernando
5 years ago

Very interesting research. But I sincerely feel that there is a lot more to dig into.
My mother tongue is Tamil and my ancestors are the Australian aborigines . There are many resemblances between Tamil and the language spoken by the Australian aboriginal people. In addition to this, Tamils have developed a music system based on micro-tones. And they have been using chants in their places of worship as a matter of fact for a long time, even before the arrival of Sanskrit in India.

In their music system, (Tamils) they have 72 unique scales out of which at least one third of them are unique chromatic scales involving micro tones that don’t exist in Western Music. Also they use certain scales to heal sleeplessness …. eg: Scale known as “Saarugesi” or “Neelambari” in Tamil. Another interesting aspect in their music system is that certain scales can be sung or played during certain time of the day…eg: Scale “Poobalam” is meant for dawn and “Kalyaani” is meant for dusk.

Best regards

Amal Fernando

Dr GBK rao
5 years ago

Sanskrit is Sacred Heritage mother of all languages!
Every alphabet is great impact and powerful on Body, organs and on surroundings if use with understanding much more powerful or without understanding means just chanting also great impact!
To reach ultimate goal in life Sanskrit language is ultimate and true language.
Human brain will work Super

5 years ago

Th chanting system comes from our hindu mythology not India.So in nepal most of us are hindu and sanskrit chantings were very popular in Nepal

PC Rao
5 years ago

For those who said any thing could be chanted: syllables affect neurons, no doubt, but sounds also create emotions. Better to chant auspicious words of Veda,Talmud, Khuran and Bible. They will create positive emotions and healthy vibrations. You will attract good things of life from the Universe.

5 years ago
purujit dasa
5 years ago

chant hare krishna and see yourself…

5 years ago

Science shows that chanting helps medically but it does not matter what is chanted: e.g. PHUUUUUUU’KING AHAHAHAHAH SOUL.

5 years ago

When my daughter first shared with me that she wanted to try smoking. I told her about my experience visiting a cigarette factory and watching tobacco become brown sludge with over 400 different chemicals added and then being put through more processes to make it look more like tobacco again.

And then I asked her to go to the Internet and get all the info she could about tobacco and if she still wanted to smoke, I’d buy her a pack of American Spirit.

To my surprise she came back with info and still wanted to try it. So we arranged a time and a place to do it.

She inhaled… she coughed… she laughed… she got a little dizzy… she liked that… she got a little more dizzy… she didn’t like that… then she got nauseous… she really didn’t like that…

She said: why do people do it!

They like the dizzy feeling… the nausea dissipates after awhile… but you know there is another way to get dizzy: spinning!

So she became a Sufi!

linda donahue
5 years ago

How fascinating that the monks were getting more sleep, and yet were feeling far more tired than before! I loved the energizing nature of it. How wonderful that online now we can benefit from these tones and notes. Just a note, if you feel so inclined, check out Green Red Productions and their researched music and tones. Don’t take a sleeping pill ever again!

5 years ago

It’s not Sanskrit but process of memorising.Same effects were found in London cap drivers memorising streets.

5 years ago

Learning another language can help stroke victims. Preseumably for similar reasons.

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