Meditation can forge lasting changes in the brain and, as an Australian experiment in the taboo area of self-harm shows, its positive effect can be life-transforming.
Researchers at the University of Melbourne conducted the ground-breaking experiment, scanning the brain of a young woman who had grappled with the problem of self-harm since her teens.
They saw positive changes in brain activity after she took part in a research-backed course in meditation and relaxation techniques.
Brisbane’s Alison Dower also meditated daily for eight weeks.
“The desire to self-harm is not particularly strong anymore due to all the work I’ve done,” Ms Dower, now aged 23, said on Wednesday.
“I don’t know if I’d call it a cure but I would say if it works for you it is a very very potent tool to have.
“I haven’t self-harmed in over 12 months.”
Ms Dower’s initial brain scans revealed a “rightward bias” in her brain activity, known to be associated with a higher incidence of depression and negative emotion.
Professor Nick Allen, from the university’s Department of Psychological Sciences, said the scan following the meditation intervention showed a shift in brain activity “more leftwards … which is a pattern more associated with positive emotions and positive coping”.
“This is, in my opinion, one of the most exciting areas of neuroscience,” Prof Allen said, “that the brain can change in response to experiences and in response to activity”.
This experiment is the focus of a documentary, The Silent Epidemic, to be broadcast on SBS One from 8.30pm on Sunday.
In it, Ms Dower joins with other young Australians to offer a candid and at-times confronting insight into the broader issue of self-harm.
Up to eight per cent of the Australian population are thought to engage in self-harming behaviour. For some it becomes routine, often involving deliberate cutting or scratching of the arms or legs.
“We’re discovering thatit is much more widespread than we thought,” Prof Allen said.
“And it is occurring in contexts where there isn’t another formal mental health problem, therefore we do need some specific treatment approaches.
“The case study with Alison is extremely encouraging, and is a critical first step on that path.”
Prof Allen also said self-harm was a “hard issue for the health system to get its head around” and he understood that many people would find it “impossible to comprehend”.
“But all of us behave at times, in certain ways, that are self-destructive (like punching a wall or insulting a loved one) and these people have become stuck with a much more severe form of it.”