By November 13, 2012 3 Comments Read More →

Meditating Measurably Changes The Brain Even When Not Actively Meditating

April McCarthy, Prevent Disease
Waking Times 

A new study has found that participating in an 8-week meditation training program can have measurable effects on how the brain functions even when someone is not actively meditating.

Published research has demonstrated that the practice of regular meditation can increase brain density, boost connections between neurons, decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety, provide clarity of thought, and increase positive mood endorphins. Other published studies have shown meditation can improve physical functioning, decrease chronic disease risks, and enhance overall quality of life.

In a 2008 study published in the journal PloS One, researchers found that when meditators heard the sounds of people suffering, they had stronger activation levels in their temporal parietal junctures, a part of the brain tied to empathy, than people who did not meditate.

These studies demonstrate that regular meditation effectively supports mental, emotional and physical health in numerous tangible ways. In building upon this strong body of evidence, researchers are continuing to deepen our understanding of the profound and inspirational benefits of regular meditation practice in everyday life.

In their latest report in the November issue of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Boston University (BU), and several other research centers also found differences in those effects based on the specific type of meditation practiced.

“The two different types of meditation training our study participants completed yielded some differences in the response of the amygdala — a part of the brain known for decades to be important for emotion — to images with emotional content,” says Gaelle Desbordes, PhD, a research fellow at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH and at the BU Center for Computational Neuroscience and Neural Technology, corresponding author of the report. “This is the first time that meditation training has been shown to affect emotional processing in the brain outside of a meditative state.”

Several previous studies have supported the hypothesis that meditation training improves practitioners’ emotional regulation. While neuroimaging studies have found that meditation training appeared to decrease activation of the amygdala — a structure at the base of the brain that is known to have a role in processing memory and emotion — those changes were only observed while study participants were meditating. The current study was designed to test the hypothesis that meditation training could also produce a generalized reduction in amygdala response to emotional stimuli, measurable by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Participants had enrolled in a larger investigation into the effects of two forms of meditation, based at Emory University in Atlanta. Healthy adults with no experience meditating participated in 8-week courses in either mindful attention meditation — the most commonly studied form that focuses on developing attention and awareness of breathing, thoughts and emotions — and compassion meditation, a less-studied form that includes methods designed to develop loving kindness and compassion for oneself and for others. A control group participated in an 8-week health education course.

Within three weeks before beginning and three weeks after completing the training, 12 participants from each group traveled to Boston for fMRI brain imaging at the Martinos Center’s state-of-the-art imaging facilities. Brain scans were performed as the volunteers viewed a series of 216 different images — 108 per session — of people in situations with either positive, negative or neutral emotional content. Meditation was not mentioned in pre-imaging instructions to participants, and investigators confirmed afterwards that the volunteers had not meditated while in the scanner. Participants also completed assessments of symptoms of depression and anxiety before and after the training programs.

In the mindful attention group, the after-training brain scans showed a decrease in activation in the right amygdala in response to all images, supporting the hypothesis that meditation can improve emotional stability and response to stress. In the compassion meditation group, right amygdala activity also decreased in response to positive or neutral images. But among those who reported practicing compassion meditation most frequently outside of the training sessions, right amygdala activity tended to increase in response to negative images — all of which depicted some form of human suffering. No significant changes were seen in the control group or in the left amygdala of any study participants.

“We think these two forms of meditation cultivate different aspects of mind,” Desbordes explains. “Since compassion meditation is designed to enhance compassionate feelings, it makes sense that it could increase amygdala response to seeing people suffer. Increased amygdala activation was also correlated with decreased depression scores in the compassion meditation group, which suggests that having more compassion towards others may also be beneficial for oneself. Overall, these results are consistent with the overarching hypothesis that meditation may result in enduring, beneficial changes in brain function, especially in the area of emotional processing.”

The neuroscientists at UCLA compared meditators of different experience levels to people who never meditated. In those who meditated, they found significant increases in cortical folding across a wide area of the brain responsible for numerous functions beyond rapid information processing and retrieval. Additional areas of the brain markedly affected by meditation involve emotional and mental health capacities, influencing processes of emotional control, heightened awareness, and introspection. This falls directly in line with some of the more noticeable results of regular meditation, which often include increased compassion for one’s self and others, enhanced self awareness and introspection, and greater emotional stability.

About the Author

April McCarthy is a community journalist playing an active role reporting and analyzing world events to advance our health and eco-friendly initiatives.

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3 Comments on "Meditating Measurably Changes The Brain Even When Not Actively Meditating"

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  1. Angel says:

    This is very interesting. However, I am concerned that the myth that you have to be trained to learn meditation is still being peddled. This puts people off and is untrue, making meditation into something special. The truth is that anyone can meditate without any equipment, special postures or a teacher. You need to sit down and close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and concentrate on sending loving energy out into the world from your heart. That’s it. You find your life improves and you find for how long you meditate easily and when. Some people prefer to do it at dawn or join the world peace meditation at 9.30pm (GMT) Some people like to use pictures or music as a focus. Others enjoy silence There is no right way.

    The moving or dance meditation of shamans and native american Indians or Tai Chi come into the same category as does the washing up or gardening and other creative arts. Watch the final part of David Icke’s Wembley Arena presentation at davidicke.com/wembley for a very moving group meditation. You really need to see the first 2.5 hours to understand where he is coming from unless you are familiar with his work. But the meditation is simple and something we can all do to help our troubled planet.

    Please try it for yourself.

    Love and blessingsxxxx

    • Vincent says:

      Hi Angel
      Well, I have a stack of dishes that needs to be done, my lawn needs mowing and I have several sets of shoes desperate for polishing so whenever you are free I would love to welcome you to my home and get them all done while meditating and sending love to the outer world.

      Sorry, I couldn’t resist :-)

      I started with meditation a few years ago and what a journey it has been, but there still a long way to go. I started with simple breath meditation then got into Buddhism, learned about ego, rigpa (space between thoughts), enlightenment, the list is endless. The comments I would like to share from my own experience are as follows. When meditating, there are two fundamental things to be aware of. a) do not meditate in order to try to achieve something, it is not a goal and it is not a race. b) let go of your thoughts, and this one is for me very important and initially thought to crack. Whet I mean is that when you meditate and became aware of ‘Angel is coming to do the dishes’ thought, become aware of it and let it go. By trying to dismiss it, by trying to think about it you are again generating thoughts which defies the purpose of meditation to begin with so there is something to remember. One last comment if I may, it is by far more beneficial to allocate 10-15 min every day than to sit for 30 min at the end of the week. Why? Because by allocating those 10-15min every day your brain knows that when that particular time of the day comes it is time to chill and get into meditative state. Stick with it, it really works. Blessings to you all and thanks for reading.

  2. Mr Bruce says:

    SO the amygdala is at ”the base of the brain”, according to one paragraph ? …..hmmmmmm

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