meditation & brain science

Imaging finds different forms of meditation may affect brain structure

A new study has found that participating in an eight-week meditation training program can have measurable effects on how the brain functions even when someone is not actively meditating. In their report in the November issue of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, investigators at Harvard Medical School-affiliated 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 Gaëlle Desbordes, 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. Although neuroimaging studies have found that meditation training appeared to decrease activation of the amygdala (a structure at the base of the brain that is also 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: mindful attention meditation and compassion meditation. Based at Emory University in Atlanta, healthy adults with no experience meditating participated in eight-week courses in either mindful attention meditation — which focuses on developing attention to 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 eight-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 preimaging instructions to participants, and investigators confirmed afterward 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 study was supported by grants from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, including an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant to Boston University.

Read More

Stressed out? Try mindfulness meditation

Meryl Davids Landau, US News: One of the hottest forms of stress reduction today is actually one of the oldest: meditation. But the kind making the rounds of hospitals, community centers, and even schools in increasing numbers doesn’t involve chanting “Om” while sitting on a cushion with closed eyes; instead, participants are trained to pay attention to their thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, and to view them neutrally, “without assigning an emotional value that they are strongly positive or negative,” says University of Wisconsin–Madison neuroscientist Richard Davidson, coauthor of The Emotional Life of Your Brain.

The idea is to allow parts of the …

Read the original article »

Read More

The neuroscience of wellbeing

Jock Gilchrist, The Review: Meditation has been a central component of religious traditions for millennia. Various methods exist, but it generally consists of quieting the mind to achieve a state of relaxation and clarity. Buddhists use it to cultivate virtuous qualities like compassion and equanimity because in the meditative state, the mind is compared to malleable gold. As it turns out, the sages of old actually tapped into quite a literal truth.

Modern neurobiology hypothesizes that what we experience subjectively as a mood or emotion is underpinned by complex, systemic interactions of chemicals called neurotransmitters in the brain. Take, for example, antidepressants: they …

Read the original article »

Read More

Stanford studies monks’ meditation, compassion

Meredith May: Stanford neuroeconomist Brian Knutson is an expert in the pleasure center of the brain that works in tandem with our financial decisions – the biology behind why we bypass the kitchen coffeemaker to buy the $4 Starbucks coffee every day.

He can hook you up to a brain scanner, take you on a simulated shopping spree and tell by looking at your nucleus accumbens – an area deep inside your brain associated with fight, flight, eating and fornicating – how you process risk and reward, whether you’re a spendthrift or a tightwad.

So when his colleagues saw him putting Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns into …

Read the original article »

Read More

Distinct ‘God spot’ in the brain does not exist, researcher says

Scientists have speculated that the human brain features a “God spot,” one distinct area of the brain responsible for spirituality. Now, University of Missouri researchers have completed research that indicates spirituality is a complex phenomenon, and multiple areas of the brain are responsible for the many aspects of spiritual experiences. Based on a previously published study that indicated spiritual transcendence is associated with decreased right parietal lobe functioning, MU researchers replicated their findings. In addition, the researchers determined that other aspects of spiritual functioning are related to increased activity in the frontal lobe.

“We have found a neuropsychological basis for spirituality, but it’s not isolated to one specific area of the brain,” said Brick Johnstone, professor of health psychology in the School of Health Professions. “Spirituality is a much more dynamic concept that uses many parts of the brain. Certain parts of the brain play more predominant roles, but they all work together to facilitate individuals’ spiritual experiences.”

In the most recent study, Johnstone studied 20 people with traumatic brain injuries affecting the right parietal lobe, the area of the brain situated a few inches above the right ear. He surveyed participants on characteristics of spirituality, such as how close they felt to a higher power and if they felt their lives were part of a divine plan. He found that the participants with more significant injury to their right parietal lobe showed an increased feeling of closeness to a higher power.

“Neuropsychology researchers consistently have shown that impairment on the right side of the brain decreases one’s focus on the self,” Johnstone said. “Since our research shows that people with this impairment are more spiritual, this suggests spiritual experiences are associated with a decreased focus on the self. This is consistent with many religious texts that suggest people should concentrate on the well-being of others rather than on themselves.”

Johnstone says the right side of the brain is associated with self-orientation, whereas the left side is associated with how individuals relate to others. Although Johnstone studied people with brain injury, previous studies of Buddhist meditators and Franciscan nuns with normal brain function have shown that people can learn to minimize the functioning of the right side of their brains to increase their spiritual connections during meditation and prayer.

In addition, Johnstone measured the frequency of participants’ religious practices, such as how often they attended church or listened to religious programs. He measured activity in the frontal lobe and found a correlation between increased activity in this part of the brain and increased participation in religious practices.

“This finding indicates that spiritual experiences are likely associated with different parts of the brain,” Johnstone said.

The study, “Right parietal lobe ‘selflessness’ as the neuropsychological basis of spiritual transcendence,” was published in the International Journal of the Psychology of Religion.

Read More

Research reveals meditation changes brain

Denise Dador, KABC: Over the years, numerous studies have shown how meditation can be a great way to manage and alleviate stress. Now local researchers say there appears to be physical proof that shows years of meditation may change the brain.

Meditation trainer Julianna Raye of Hollywood is guiding a mindfulness exercise. She’s been practicing for 17 years and says it’s made her mind stronger.

“It’s like training at the gym,” said Raye. “You’re training your mind. You’re improving your concentration. And that’s a skill that you need to develop.”

Raye may be using building muscles …

Read the original article »

Read More

More evidence emerges that meditation strengthens the brain

Earlier evidence out of UCLA suggested that meditating for years thickens the brain (in a good way) and strengthens the connections between brain cells.

Now a further report by UCLA researchers suggests yet another benefit.

Eileen Luders, an assistant professor at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, and colleagues, have found that long-term meditators have larger amounts of gyrification (“folding” of the cortex, which may allow the brain to process information faster) than people who do not meditate.

Further, a direct correlation was found between the amount of gyrification and the number of meditation years, possibly providing further proof of the brain’s neuroplasticity, or ability to adapt to environmental changes.

The article appears in the online edition of the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

The cerebral cortex is the outermost layer of neural tissue. Among other functions, it plays a key role in memory, attention, thought and consciousness. Gyrification or cortical folding is the process by which the surface of the brain undergoes changes to create narrow furrows and folds called sulci and gyri. Their formation may promote and enhance neural processing. Presumably then, the more folding that occurs, the better the brain is at processing information, making decisions, forming memories and so forth.

“Rather than just comparing meditators and non-meditators, we wanted to see if there is a link between the amount of meditation practice and the extent of brain alteration,” said Luders. “That is, correlating the number of years of meditation with the degree of folding.”

Of the 49 recruited subjects, the researchers took MRI scans of 23 meditators and compared them to 16 control subjects matched for age, handedness and sex. (Ten participants dropped out.) The scans for the controls were obtained from an existing MRI database, while the meditators were recruited from various meditation venues. The meditators had practiced their craft on average for 20 years using a variety of meditation types — Samatha, Vipassana, Zen and more. The researchers applied a well-established and automated whole-brain approach to measure cortical gyrification at thousands of points across the surface of the brain.

They found pronounced group differences (heightened levels of gyrification in active meditation practitioners) across a wide swatch of the cortex, including the left precentral gyrus, the left and right anterior dorsal insula, the right fusiform gyrus and the right cuneus.

Perhaps most interesting, though, was the positive correlation between the number of meditation years and the amount of insular gyrification.

“The insula has been suggested to function as a hub for autonomic, affective and cognitive integration,” said Luders. “Meditators are known to be masters in introspection and awareness as well as emotional control and self-regulation, so the findings make sense that the longer someone has meditated, the higher the degree of folding in the insula.”

While Luders cautions that genetic and other environmental factors could have contributed to the effects the researchers observed, still, “The positive correlation between gyrification and the number of practice years supports the idea that meditation enhances regional gyrification.”

Read More

Brain scans prove Eastern philosophies can be effective in treating mental illness

wildmind meditation news

Erica Crompton, Daily Mail: Meditation is sitting around trying to think about nothing and letting out the occasional ‘ommmm’.

They do lots of it in India and in parts of Islington where they eat granola, too. OK, those are sweeping statements but you catch my drift.

I’m open-minded, but if you had asked me a few years ago whether I believed meditation could be an effective treatment for serious mental illness, I would have laughed. However, that is exactly what some of Britain’s mental health experts now believe.

It has been almost a decade since I was first diagnosed with paranoid psychosis, a type of schizophrenia. It’s not as dramatic it sounds – I’ve seen a psychiatrist about once every three months since I became ill, and my medication is managed by the GP.

I needed to go into hospital once, for a week. I take an anti-psychotic drug called amisulpride. I’d rather not be dependent on tablets but if I stop taking them, I feel unwell again.

It happened just recently. I ran out of pills before the weekend and thought I would be fine to wait to see my doctor on Monday. By Sunday, anxiety had begun to creep up on me. My illness makes me feel I’ve done something terribly wrong, although I’m not sure what …

Read the original article »

Promo for Wildmind's meditation initiative

Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. Click here to find out about the many benefits of being a sponsor.

Read More

Scans ‘show mindfulness meditation brain boost’

wildmind meditation news

The theory that meditation can reduce stress, depression and even chronic pain is one that has been gaining in momentum in recent years.

So the BBC’s David Sillito has been learning the art of mindfulness meditation in order to find out for himself.

After getting to grips with the activity, he joined some other devotees for an MRI scan to find out what impact the practice can have on brain activity.

Click to read the original article and watch the video»

Promo for Wildmind's meditation initiative

Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. Click here to find out about the many benefits of being a sponsor.

Read More

How meditation might help with weight loss

wildmind meditation news

Alex Knapp, Forbes: A group of researchers at UC San Francisco have conducted a study indicating that meditation could be a key in helping people to control their dietary habits and help them lose weight. It’s only a small-scale study and needs reproduction, but its findings are consistent with other studies of mindfulness.

Here’s the setup: the researchers took a randomized group of 47 overweight women and divided them into two groups. Both groups received training on the basics of diet and exercise, but no diets were prescribed to either group.

The experimental group received training in “mindful eating” and meditation in weekly sessions. In the mindful eating training, the women were trained to experience the moment-by-moment sensory experience of eating . They also meditated for 30 minutes a day.

The goal of the experiment was two-fold – to use mindful eating to help control cravings and overeating, and to use meditation as a stress relief to prevent “comfort eating.” The preliminary results showed that they were successful. The women in the control group gained weight, while those in the control group maintained …

their weight and showed significant reductions in their cortisol levels (high cortisol levels are a side effect of stress).

“You’re training the mind to notice, but to not automatically react based on habitual patterns — to not reach for a candy bar in response to feeling anger, for example,” said researcher Jennifer Daubenmier in a press release.  “If you can first recognize what you are feeling before you act, you have a greater chance of making a wiser decision.”

Dr. Catherine Kerr, a meditation researcher at Brown University, is also encouraged by the study. She told me in an email that “These findings are consistent with numerous brain studies showing that this practice of attending mindfully to present moment experience brings about changes in brain areas responsible for body sensations, especially body sensations related to hunger and craving (in the brain area called the ‘insula’), the idea here being that daily practice actually trains your brain to help you tune in to your body in a more healthy way.”

There are caveats to this study – it’s only preliminary, and it had a small test group. Also, the difference in the weight changes reported above only applied to the women in the study who were classified as ‘obese’ by their BMI. Overall, there wasn’t a statistically significant difference between the control group and experimental group when it came to weight.  (The stress levels were different, however.) But given this study’s consistency with other findings, I think that a bigger scale study would show that the combination of stress reduction via meditation and craving control via mindful eating should work to maintain weight if practiced consistently.

The science of meditation is a subject that will never stop fascinating me – now that it’s started to become the subject of serious research, it’s revealing some aspects of the human brain that are truly insightful. I think that as we explore it more, we’re going to discover some human potential that for most people has remained untapped.

Read the original article »

Bodhipaksa

Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. Click here to find out about the many benefits of being a sponsor.

Read More
Menu