The Sanskrit Effect: How Chanting Boosts Cognitive Functions

Dr James Hartzell, a world renowned Neuroscientist and a Sanskrit devotee coined the term “Sanskrit effect” in the journal Scientific American.

Dr Hartzell has spent many years studying and translating the Sanskrit language and he noticed that his cognitive functions such as memory and decision making were greatly enhanced due to Sanskrit language.

“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 memorize 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.” states, Dr. James Hartzell

Dr Hartzell got curious to find out if memorizing Sanskrit chants can have any effects on the cognitive functions of memory and decision making.

He formed a team comprising of his colleagues from University of Trento in Italy and few doctors from National Brain Research Centre in Haryana, India to undertake a formal study to find out the effects of Sanskrit language on the brain.

The study consisted of 42 volunteers, out of which 21 were professionally qualified Sanskrit pundits, aged around 21, who had been trained for 7 years in their childhood in reciting Shukla Yajurveda,(which is a Sacred Sanskrit text and takes six hours to chant) and another 21  regular males of similar age bracket from nearby colleges.


Brain Imaging

The study involved brain imaging of these 42 volunteers with a method called structural magnetic resonance using the magnetic resonance imaging instruments at NBRC, India.

The study enabled them to find out the shape and size of different regions of the brains of these individuals.


A Startling Discovery

“What we discovered (1) 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.” Dr James Hartzell


The results of the study were startling.

The team found out that the brain of the 21 Vedic pundits had denser grey matter as compared to the group of other 21 males.

The so-called grey matter of the brain is actually a region containing neuronal cells and areas responsible for:

  • Sensory perceptions
  • Memory
  • Speech
  •  Muscle control and decision making.

And connected to it is the other part, i.e., the white matter of the brain -nerve cells that carry the signals to the grey matter part of the brain.


Another important constituent in the human brain is Hippocampus:

Hippocampus is a small organ located in the middle region of the brain, responsible for registering and regulating all our emotions associated with memory (especially the long term memory) and has both front and back parts.

The back part is involved in memory and supports recollection of events.

And then there is another part called the Cortex:

 Which is the outermost layer surrounding the brain, responsible for higher cognitive functions like decision making.

After the study, it was found out that not only the grey matter was higher in brains of Vedic pundits but also their cortex region was thicker and the hippocampus was more prominent than the other set of 21 controls.

It has been proven by Neuroscience also that rigorous memorizing can have positive effects on the brain.

And therefore, it is not surprising to see that memorizing rigorous Sanskrit chants can improve the cognitive functions of memory and better thinking.


Past Studies

It is believed that these texts contain positive vibrations that help to heal and calm a person and also help to increase the grey matter in the brain.

There have been similar experiments conducted in the past to find out the effect of chanting sacred texts on the brain.

Even 50 years ago, when there were no brain imaging methods available, a French psychologist, found out that Christian monks who were into rigorous Gregorian Chanting had exceptional memory and grey matter.

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Shweta Advani
An HR consultant by profession, a slam poet and freelance writer.Avid reader,dancer and yoga enthusiast. When I am not reading or writing, I star gaze or take long walks in nature.
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