Meditation Changes the Structure of Your Brain in a Positive Way, Studies Show
For years, scientists have been trying to determine, through the study of neuroscience, if meditation has any effect on our personal health and our environment, going so far as to question if it could potentially lower crime rates.
In 2002, scientists from the University of Wisconsin studied six meditative states: visualization, one-pointed concentration, generating compassion, devotion, fearlessness, and the “open state.”
The researchers then studied the brains of meditating Buddhist monks using electroencephalogram (EEG) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The results were reportedly “breath-taking.”
Mind-blowing. When the University of Wisconsin measured the brains of Buddhist monks meditating on compassion, 'the results were breath-taking':
'We thought there was something wrong with our instrumentation.'
— Media Lens (@medialens) February 19, 2020
Lions Roar reports:
“In short, Llama Oser’s brain shift during compassion seemed to reflect an extremely pleasant mood. The very act of concern for others’ well-being, it seems, creates a greater state of well-being within oneself. The finding lends scientific support to an observation often made by the Dalai Lama: that the person doing a meditation on compassion for all beings is the immediate beneficiary.“
Another study corroborated the research done by Davidson. Paul Ekman, one of the world’s most eminent experts on the science of emotion who heads the Human Interaction Laboratory at the University of California at San Francisco, lead an experiment on facial human emotions.
The experiment consisted of a videotape in which a series of faces show a variety of expressions very briefly being shown to participants. Study participants were told to identify whether they had seen contempt, anger, or fear in those on the screen which flickered the images in a matter of seconds.
Lions Roar continues reporting:
“Then Ekman announced his results: both Lama Oser and another advanced Western meditator Ekman had been able to test were two standard deviations above the norm in recognizing these super-quick facial signals of emotion, albeit the two subjects differed in the emotions they were best at perceiving. They both scored far higher than any of the five thousand other people tested. “They do better than policemen, lawyers, psychiatrists, customs officials, judges—even Secret Service agents,” the group that had previously distinguished itself as most accurate.
“It appears that one benefit of some part of the life paths these two have followed is becoming more aware of these subtle signs of how other people feel,” Ekman notes. Oser had super-acuity for the fleeting signs of fear, contempt and anger. The other meditator— a Westerner who, like Oser, had done a total of two to three years in solitary retreats in the Tibetan tradition—was similarly outstanding, though on a different range of emotions: happiness, sadness, disgust and, like Oser, anger.”
Another study on stifling the startle reflex produced shocking results. According to Lions Roar, these studies had given Davidson convincing data that meditation can shift the brain as well as the body. While Oser’s results suggested just how far that shift could go with years of practice in meditation, even beginners displayed signs of biological shifts.
A more recent study conducted by the Max Planck Institute in 2017, corroborates the research even further, finding that different types of meditation can actually affect different areas of the brain.
Alice G. Walton, a writer for Forbes explained:
“Participants, who were between 20 and 55 years of age, engaged in three different types of training for three months each, totalling a nine-month study period. The first training was dubbed the “Presence” module, and was very similar to focused awareness meditation, an ancient practice that’s been studied a lot in recent years. In this study, participants learned to focus their attention, bringing it back when it wandered, and to attend to the breath and to their internal body sensations.”
The second phase of the training was called “Affect,” and its purpose was to increase compassion and empathy for others. The participants were taught about a specific meditation for “loving-kindness,” with the sole intention being to enhance one’s compassion and empathy.
The last phase was called the “Perspective” module, where the focus was simply to observe one’s own thoughts without judgement, i.e. open-monitoring meditation.
The results shape our understanding of the human brain, meditation, and its effects on our emotions.
“The researchers wagered that training in each of these methods would lead to volume increases in corresponding brain areas. And this was largely what they found, as they scanned the participants’ brains at the end of each module and compared groups against one another. Training in Presence was linked to enhanced thickness in the anterior prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which are known to be strongly involved in attention. Affect training was linked to increased thickness in regions known to be involved in socially driven emotions like empathy; and Perspective training associated with changes in areas involved in understanding the mental states of others, and, interestingly, inhibiting the perspective of oneself,” Walton wrote.
Another study from the University Of Wisconsin also suggests that meditation and exercise could ward off the common cold and flu. However, in some cases meditation can cause harm, according to other studies.
There’s no correct or incorrect way to meditate. There are different types of meditation and different religions and spiritual paths have their own unique methods. The process of connecting with one’s higher self and silencing the noise in the mind can be done in multiple ways. As scientists demonstrated, each one has a different effect on your brain and in turn your emotions.
Find out what form of meditation works for you and practice, practice, practice, expand—and unleash your mind.