Zen meditation is an ancient spiritual practice that promotes awareness and presence through the undivided engagement of mind and body. For thousands of years, many religious traditions have made meditation a common practice. Now, researchers at Emory University are looking at the effects of Zen meditation and how the brain functions during meditative states. By determining the brain structures involved in meditation and whose activity is gradually changed in the course of long-term meditative practice, researchers hope this training could one day be used as a complementary treatment for neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
“In contrast to the common conceptualization of meditation as a relaxation technique, we think that meditation could be more usefully characterized as training in the skillful deployment of attention and inhibitory control,” says Giuseppe Pagnoni, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University School of Medicine, and lead researcher of this study.
“We chose to investigate Zen meditation because, from an experimental point of view, it is a very simple technique, the quintessence of many other meditative variations. You concentrate on the correct posture and the coming and going of your breathing, and repeatedly come back to these ‘attentional supports’ every time you find yourself distracted by thoughts, memories, sensations, etc. We believe that people who have undergone a rigorous training in Zen meditation might display a functional modification of the neural circuits underlying the performance of attentional control and behavioral switching. Therefore, we are looking closely at the brain to understand which areas support the mental processes mustered by meditation and how these relate to the existing literature on neuroimaging of cognitive functions.”
Researchers will use functional MRI (fMRI) to acquire images of the brain during a simplified experimental condition designed to tap into the same resources activated by meditation. fMRI is a technique for determining which areas of the brain are activated during specifically designed mental or motor tasks. The pilot study is being funded by the Emory Center for Research on Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) in Neurodegenerative Diseases.
The study will enroll 30 participants: 15 who are trained in and have practiced Zen meditation every day for at least three years, and 15 who have never meditated. The latter 15 will serve as the control group. Each participant will undergo brain scans while engaging in sustained concentration on breathing, a condition that will be interrupted at random times by the requirement of performing simple cognitive tasks. A second run of fMRI scanning will analyze an undisturbed concentrative state, with no interruption by any other tasks.