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This Is Your Brain on Meditation

July 22, 2012

Buddhist monk in an MRI machine at UCLA.

There have been many studies on the effects and benefits of meditation lately.  Meditation has been shown to decrease pain, stabilize mood, reduce stress, increase immune response, and even lose weight.  Social scientists have demonstrated strong links between meditation and emotional intelligence and more effective coping strategies.  Biological scientists have demonstrated that meditation actually changes brain structure, mass, brain wave patterns and electrical activity, and brain chemistry.  Sometimes they can link these physical changes in the brain to actual behaviors, such as altruism and compassion.

In case you’ve missed them, here is a roundup of the latest articles:

Two researchers at the University of Toronto Scarborough found that emotional intelligence cultivated through meditation improves willpower.  “Willpower or self-control may be sharpest in people who are sensitive and open to their own emotional experiences. Willpower, in other words, may relate to ‘emotional intelligence.'”   Emotional intelligence was more strongly correlated than mindfulness to better ‘executive control,’ that aspect of willpower that helps us get up early, eat healthy, and otherwise control our impulses and cravings.  Read the whole paper here and a synopsis here.

The Telegraph, a British newspaper, has done a couple of articles on meditation for pain management in breast cancer patients.  The most recent article mention a study whose “results show, for the first time, that the use of Mindfulness offers a ‘statistically significant improvement in physical and emotional wellbeing.'”  Dr. Caroline Hoffman is using Jon Kabbat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) technique at The Breast Cancer Haven in Fulham, London.  The previous article discussed how “Visitors to The Haven have spoken of feeling ‘calmer, centred, at peace, connected and more confident'; ‘being more aware’, ‘coping with stress, anxiety and panic'; ‘being less judgemental of myself and others” and ‘making time for myself’.” The second article noted the spread of mindfulness to large corporations such as Apple and Google and asked the thought provoking question “…it does make me wonder what would happen to the number of cancer cases if we all learned Mindfulness from a young age. What do you think?”

Another UK newspaper, the Daily Mail, ran a headline in February which read “Once dismissed as pretentious but now brain scans prove Eastern philosophies can be effective in treating mental illness.”  How nice of them.  The article goes on:

‘Meditation helps to reduce the activity of part of the brain called the amygdala, which governs feelings of stress. Those who are more stressed and anxious have an amygdala that is overactive. Meditating reduces this.

‘And there is an effect on the insula, the part of the brain involved in deep emotions, including love,’ he says. ‘We know from other studies that the insula allows us to feel emotions, so when we are heartbroken we really do experience a kind of pain.

‘Normally activity in this area is closely linked to the part of the brain involved in analytical thought. So if we have a fight with our partner, we not only feel dreadful but we start to think about why, what this says about our relationship and what might happen if we don’t put it right.’

In those with mental illness, this loop becomes overactive – the thinking feeds the emotions, which feeds more thinking until it becomes overwhelming.

Prof Williams adds: ‘Meditating breaks this cycle by reducing the links between the insula and the parts of the brain that analyse, as we have seen on brain scans.

‘It doesn’t stop a person from feeling or thinking but it uncouples these two parts of the brain, giving the patient more control.

‘Further to that, we’ve discovered in clinical trials that mindfulness works as well as antidepressants in preventing relapse of depression. It can also be used alongside drugs.’

The Daily Mail ran another article in June which said “Why meditation helps you focus: Mindfulness improves brain wiring in just a month.”  The Huffington Post picked up on this as well, and has a series of similar articles (herehere, and here), including one about how meditation reduced violence in an Alabama prison.

Researchers at the University of Zurich have identified a brain region linked to altruism and shown that people with more grey matter in this area behave more altruistically.  While this study does not itself contain a direct link to meditation, other studies have demonstrated meditation’s ability to alter brain structure.

A Stanford study of Tibetan Buddhist monks showed that the “nucleus accumbens, which receives a dopamine hit when a person anticipates something pleasant, like winning at blackjack,” can “light up for altruistic reasons” such as when extending compassion meditation to others.  So we can get the same high from activating our goodwill for others as we do from playing video games.

In May, the New York Times ran an article that highlighted studies by UCLA and the Medical College of Wisconsin.  “Previous studies found that the brains of long-term meditators had increased amounts of so-called gray and white matter…”  The UCLA study found “found that long-term meditators … had greater gyrification” or that “more [brain] folds mean more neurons.”  The results and meaning of this study are yet to be fully understood.  The article referenced an earlier study presented to the American Heart Association that showed that transcendental meditation improved outcomes for patients at high risk of heart attack.  The UCLA study was also featured in a short video by the local ABC news station.

Even the National Institutes of Health are posting about meditation.  The article states:

The researchers found evidence of measurable changes in white matter associated with a part of the brain network related to self-regulation — the anterior cingulate cortex — after short exposure to focused meditation. The same changes did not occur after relaxation-oriented meditation, which emphasizes sequential relaxation of different muscle groups.

Popular tech news blog Gizmodo has picked up on this, noting “Meditation Makes Your Brain Quicker,” a much more optimistic take on the same UCLA study highlighted by the New York Times.  Naturally, they’re trying to appeal to video gamers and nerds everywhere with their usual sassy spin:  “While the finding will likely make those who meditate smile smugly and say ‘I told you so’, you should attempt to rise above it with Zen-like calm. After all, it might do you good.”

Wildmind Buddhist Meditation Blog has an entire list of dozens of posts under the tag “brain” full of research from the past few years conducted all over the world.

There is an ever growing mountain of data that makes me (and others) believe that meditation should be a universal skill, starting in elementary school, just like reading and math.  Of course, I’m pretty horrible about meditation.  I can rarely make myself to do it (clearly I need more executive control).  So I would have gotten an ‘F’ in that subject as well, but considering I hated school so much as a child I really don’t see it being any worse.  And who knows, I might be the better for it now.

Over the summer, I have actually been having a little success in meditating more frequently.  That’s because I’ve given up all the rules about how it “should” be done.  Now I’m just trying to do it in a way I know I can and will.  I start with one of Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s short talks and his Dhamma Talks website.  They’re about three minutes long.  I lay on the couch and set my meditation timer (yes, there’s an ap for that) to thirty minutes.  I listen to the talk and watch my breath.  I usually fall asleep before the timer goes off, but that’s okay.  Once a week, I try to do a longer guided meditation, but sometimes I forget.  That’s okay, too.

The gist of this roundup is nothing more than “Meditation good, discursive mind bad.”  In general, every type of meditation studied, whether the secular MBSR or the specialized tonglen, was found to be beneficial.  So I don’t sweat my little adaptations too much.  If you’ve never meditated and if your meditation teachers, like mine, have been characteristically Zen-like about “the point” or “no point” of meditation, then the latest research might actually help with your motivation.  Maybe we can’t achieve enlightenment by striving after a goal, but we might just be able to alter our amygdala.

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