Neuroscience and the ‘Sanskrit Effect’

By Azriel ReShel on Friday February 23rd, 2018

Science Proves the Power of Chanting

Many of us have heard the Gyuto Monks of Tibet. With their extraordinary chanting and 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 a 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.

Sanskrit panditsSanskrit pandits train in reciting Sanskrit texts from childhood, for seven years.

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.

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 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.

Azriel ReShel

Writer, Editor, Yoga Teacher & Healing Facilitator




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58 Responses to Neuroscience and the ‘Sanskrit Effect’

    • Hinduism defines divinity as sound energy ie SHABDA BRAHMAN. While chanting sanskrit mantras, the human thought process gets linked to sound frequencies of divinity and the divine energy flows into the body.

      Memorising is the fundamental process of learning sanskrit and also CORRECT prononciation.A hindu priest has to chant mantras non stop for hours through memory while performing a ritual.For better insight visiting a vedic school will clarify on this topic.

      True not only London Cap drivers, but cap drivers all over the world have memorised roads and street and building names.But that doesnt qualify them to get the grey matter enhanced in their brains.

      • There is no magic or divinity involved in this.
        Fact is that the more senses we involve in learning… The more we learn.
        So combining sound with movement and adding deep emotion (through religious beliefs) just hits the jackpot.

    • Sanskrit is only language which is easy for memorization.When we recall verses from memory,verses come out with out any effort from the brain or any omissions of words.In short it is easy to recall.

  1. 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!

  2. 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!

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

    • This is true, and sure you can make up your own chants, but there is also an ancient system (Sanskrit) already in place for those looking to get into it. Plus, Sanskrit syllables are more connected to what they represent in the world. It was designed that way, unlike the randomness of our spelling systems that have nothing to do with the actual thing.

    • Not entirely true. In Sanskrit, especially the Vedas, the pronouncing correctly, the words utilizes different parts of the organs used to produce those specific sounds and each is supposed to activate certain neurons and parts of the brain.

  4. 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.

    • Not all sounds crate emotions.In fact sounds with certain frequencies can make you lunatic.Vedic chantings are formulated to give resonence to the molecules in body, and few selected chantings make your consciousness elevate.No chanting of other religious texts have a bearing on body or mind and they simply convey meanings.

  5. 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

    • In historical times, Nepal was also part of India (or greater India, akhanda Bharat) so were countries such as Pakistan etc and vedic chanting did originate from India, you will know this if you read authentic historical sources.

  6. 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

  7. 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

    • There is no proof that there were Tamil chanting before sanskrit. I’m a tamil and the chanting system is derieved from sanskrit. In fact both the languages have been in the land of Tamilnadu for 3000 years. It’s a modern day politics that tries to split and create conflict between both of them. Oldest Tamil grammar tolkappiyam mentions sanskrit.

      • yes sanskrit is indian languange not came from outside Amal has mixed up the what lies his white christian masters have told him in sunday school

    • This whole myth about lemur and kumari kanda and Tamils and aborigines being related is a fraud perpetrated by vested interest to divide Indians. Read Rajeev Malhotra’s Breakung India where me gives data backed and chronicled facts on how this fraud is being perpetrated. By the way I am also a Tamil . Carnatic music that you are referring to has lots of similarities with Hindustani music . Also if aborigines were Tamils and their land separated by submerging of Lemur why are there not as many temples in aborigine land as much as you find in Tamilnadu ?

      • Kumari kandam may not be a myth. There is still a lot of archaeological research that needs to be done to ascertain the facts. I live in Australia and am a tamilian too and I can strongly say that there is a connection between the Tamil people and the Australian Aborigines. Their languages have many Tamil words and even their rituals have similarities to rituals of the Tamils.The late Shankaracharya of Kanchi has mentioned that he has seen a photograph of the Aborigines dancing with a third eye drawn on their forehead with the subtitle ‘Siva dance’. There are many sacred and secret sites in the Australian outback known only to the Aborigines and nobody can access those sites without their permission. The later Kanchi acharya who passed away recently had also mentioned that Australia is a place of Shiva. The fact that there aren’t any temples in Australia could be because it is a very ancient land far before any temple worship even started in India. As for Rajiv malhotra, it is true that there are forces trying to separate Tamil nadu from the rest of India with the kumari kandam account but at the same time, kumari kandam cannot be dismissed as myth.

  8. 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.

    • OM ,seems to be the first natural sound,created in the universe.When you close ur ears,the only sound ,heard by mind is OM.This is the origin of all languages,I believe.

  9. 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.

    • Sanskrit is used as language for communication, prose/poetry and finally for chanting/rituals. This is not the case with other languages.More over sanskrit words convey multiple meanings when coupled with respective narratives.

  10. 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

  11. 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

    • How do you arrive at this fantastic conclusion? It can be dismantled with a little more awareness about othe languages e.g. Latin, Greek, Slavic. etc etc .
      Let me point out another aspect: while all other languages enriched lives of EVERYONE, Sanskrit is the only one that had prohibition with severe punishment for a vast number of population from learning. It is racist and discriminatory aspect by the holders of such primitive tradition that makes any universal claims invalid. Such claims are similar to Nazis pointing out greatness of their creations. Study Dr. Ambedkar to know more about devastating discrimination and how the embedded culture is not useful
      in modern times

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

    • Very well described your own experience. I am 58 years old, and think that chanting developes your concentration, pronunciation, memory, and benefits in several ways. One has to experience it since childhood.

    • aum and gayatri mantra are the mantras for realising god.And bhagavat gita guides to make the body and mind ready for realisation.

  14. We have experienced it our selves the above research is true.
    I have observed changes in our behaviour. Ex it helps in increasing our awareness.
    After the chanting we can feel the vibrations in surroundingsthis hleped me learn more
    Thank you

  15. Very interesting. Hope to read more about the vagus nerve and reduction of systemic inflammation in the context of chanting.

  16. Thank you for this article. 🙂 But I believe the Sukla Yajurveda takes much more than 6 hours to chant. Pundits are chanting all 4 vedas simultaneously in our Ashram every year (in a ceremony called the Chaturveda Yajna), and it normally takes 5 or 6 full days to complete.

  17. Exactly – the greatest spiritual master of the 21 st century / Avatar ( God descends in human form to the Hindus in India) Bhagawan Shri Satya Sai Baba had initiated the chanting of Vedic mantras in the Ashram in Puttarparthy India – he had also encouraged overseas devotees to learn the mantras and recite – now we have devotees from afar – Russians /Americans /Italians /South Africans / Iranians /Malayasians and other countries have starting reciting of these holy mantras – there are various mantras to be learn but the most popular and easiest mantra – THE GAYATHREE is by far the most popular and easiest to recite – these definately increases the power of the brain

  18. The findings in the first reading seem corroborated by the fact that when writing was non existent even on palm leaves, chanting to memorize was in practice for all Shruti’s, viz., Vedic and Vedant and spiritual literature transferred from Gurus to shishyas who in turn did so further. Even now, specially in Southern part of India, Vedic chanting is taught by daily practice recitation starting at early childhood.
    I shall like to be associated with your organisation. I am Civil Engineer, engaged in my own R&D and trying to engage in study of our spiritual epical literature. I give here-in-below my name and email ID for kind advice.
    (Krishna Kumar Agrawal)
    ([email protected])

  19. In Sanskrit- there is a concept of Aacharyam ( Guru- Value based Leadership) Vichaaram ( Concern) Prachaaram (to recite & propoganda). It’s only by word of mouth that such recitals with precise decibals, intonation, voice modulation, rythms with breathing techniques one could refine the science of both teaching, preaching & learning. Discipline was of core value to adapt routine.Glad that these are now researched & inferences truly heartening.

  20. We are really elated.
    It doesn’t mean that we Indians alone need to be proud of this ancient text to be holding as our Assets and proprietary over these texts.
    in India it is a common phenomena to share with all the human beings and see that all get the benefits of the the research has been longing for for centuries to be shared

  21. Even animals can be attracted through music.eg.Flute in the forest . Sea Animals like Dolphins cab be brought to shore by playing instruments or calling them by specific sounds. The problem here is acceptance of such things. Bharathiar words: How many Crores of Happiness made available on this earth by the God.

  22. Not surprising for those of us in India who do chant Gayatri mantra, atharvashrisha, etc. BUT what is astonishing in your report is the way you “researchers” conveniently forget to name the people who actually have done the Chanting. Just called them “MONKS” like you are studying some lab Rats. And you article could find the space to name the doctors. BUT NOT THE AYURVEDIC DOCTORS who gave you the information. This is why Hindus and Buddhists should be wary of such “Research Teams” who eventually will treat Hindus/Buddhists as lab rats and will claim Nobel prize, claiming that it was THEIR RESEARCH. Have some shame you colonial thieves of Hindu knowledge!!

  23. i am in mid 50s. i can recite sanskrit slokas learned in class Viii-X better than any poems of my curricula. More over the slokas give me mental strength during tough times and i realised that those help reducing my tension and mental disturbance.

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