"Your Brain on Meditation" — A Brief Survey

The eighth-century Buddhist master Vimalamitra described the progress of a meditator: one first becomes acquainted with his or her thoughts, as with familiar friends; they then learn to allow trains of thought to unravel themselves, like a snake effortlessly unknotting itself; finally, one’s mind becomes like an empty house, within which thieves find nothing (Urgyen et al. 53). Not at all an exclusively Buddhist practice, for millennia numerous cultures around the world have utilized meditation in various forms. However, despite the diversity of theories and practices underlying meditation, Vimalamitra’s definition pinpoints what they hold in common: a desire and capacity to quiet an otherwise hyperactive mind. Only relatively recently, however, have researchers been able to analyze these claims. The results of scientific inquiries suggest that meditation provides numerous benefits, including greater presence, an increased ability to manage negative emotion, more productive sociability, as well as potential neurological benefits.

Many individuals turn to meditation to cut through either persistent or negative views of themselves or others, claiming their practice helps them to become more present in their professional and personal lives. Putting this claim to the test, in 2015, Stanford Medicine’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education conducted a nine-week Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) program. The CCT program hypothesized that increased compassion, cultivated through a form of “compassion meditation,” may result in greater focus and presence. After nine weeks, participants related an approximate five percent decrease in general mind wandering; while their minds became more prone to wander to pleasant thoughts, their tendency to wander to either unpleasant or neutral thoughts decreased (“Wandering” 43). In addition to increased focus, “these results suggest that there may be differential effects on behavior depending on the specific content of mind wandering. … Thus it is also possible that mind wandering to negative topics keeps an individual in the negative affective state and prevents one from engaging in caring behaviors for oneself or others” (46). Though this particular study began with the goal of cultivating compassion and increased presence, results suggested more broadly that wandering thoughts (whether positive, negative, or neutral) could be causally linked to negative mental and behavioral patterns (45-48).

In addition to cultivating greater compassion and presence, meditation can also aid in regulating negative affect and developing emotional intelligence. To explore these benefits, Stanford Medicine conducted another CCT program in 2017, exploring “the association between compassion training and people’s affective responses, their attempts at regulating these affective responses, and their self-efficacy beliefs (i.e., their beliefs about their ability to regulate these affective states)” (“Altering” 283). The final data indicated a clear increase in participants’ calmness and an equivalent decrease in anxiety, while reported levels of fatigue and alertness remained relatively nominal (287). Though compassion meditation had exerted little effect on participants’ overall energy and alertness, through an overall decrease in negative emotion, their capacity to remain present in the midst of others’ suffering, rather than withdraw into wandering thoughts, had increased markedly. Though admittedly limited in both timeframe and participation, “this [2017 CCT] study provides valuable preliminary information about the stability and change related to affective processes during a comprehensive compassion training program” (291).

Far from benefiting the individual alone, however, meditation also has broader social benefits. In order to explore these wider effects, the University of Wisconsin-Madison conducted an experiment with pre-school students, utilizing mindfulness meditation in a “Kindness Curriculum” (KC). In the end, though there was no difference in either cognition and general knowledge or language development and communication between pre-school students who underwent the Kindness Curriculum and the control group who did not, the KC group demonstrated higher grades in learning, health, and social/emotional situations by the end of the school year. The study indicates a possible margin of error in having teachers measure their students’ performance themselves, “accentuat[ing] the need for including larger numbers of teachers and classrooms in designs that can adequately model informant response biases in future work” (Flook et al. 48). Nonetheless, KC students “showed larger gains in teacher-reported social competence as compared to the control group. In addition, the control group acted more selfishly (sharing fewer resources with others) over time as compared to the KC group.” Further, rather than a momentary uptick, “these differences emerged for second semester report card grades assigned approximately three months after the end of the [Kindness Curriculum],” demonstrating a sustained increase in “cognitive flexibility” and “delay of gratification” (49). Providing a notable increase in focus and affect regulation, meditation enables even younger, developing individuals to perform better in both social and academic settings.

Recent neuroscientific studies demonstrate that, far from a mere placebo effect, sustained meditative practice can change the brain itself. In a study examining long-term practitioners of two forms of Tibetan Buddhist meditation—Open Presence (OP) and Focused Attention (FA)— researchers discovered through EEG that subjects who practiced either OP or FA meditation at least 10,000 hours within their lifetime exhibited “increased power of brain rhythms in the gamma frequency range … and … in alpha frequency range,” as well as “some relationship between meditation-induced changes in [event-related potential]s and meditation-induced changes in brain oscillatory rhythms in both gamma and alpha frequency bands.” The study concludes from these readings that long-term meditators experience a relatively higher synchronization in neuro-synaptic firings than their novice counterparts, enabling smoother cross-communication between various sub-systems of their brains, revealing a possible neural correlate to phenomenological experiences of decreased emotional reactivity and increased presence (Fucci et al. 98).

These and other extensive findings demonstrate the possible benefits of various meditation practices. As meditation increases in popularity in the West, so too will the need for reputable scientific data to corroborate, articulate, and occasionally correct the perceptions of both practitioners and onlookers. With an increased understanding of the human brain and its emergent properties, meditation may serve as a therapeutic tool for those in need of more stable mental health or those looking for safer alternatives to psychedelics or narcotics. As social media, advancing technology, and globalization continue to dramatically reshape the world, and as new generations are born into this exponential acceleration, modern society stand perhaps now more than ever in need of healthy practices which can enable individuals to cultivate more focused attention, exercise more mature management of emotion, and imbue ever-changing social situations with compassion.

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Works Cited

  • Flook, Lisa, et al. “Promoting Prosocial Behavior and Self-Regulatory Skills in Preschool Children through a Mindfulness-Based Kindness Curriculum.” Developmental Psychology, vol. 51, no. 1, 2015, pp. 44–51., doi:10.1037/a0038256. Web. 03 Sept. 2018.

  • Fucci, E., et al. “Differential Effects of Non-Dual and Focused Attention Meditations on the Formation of Automatic Perceptual Habits in Expert Practitioners.” Neuropsychologia, vol. 119, 2018, pp. 92–100., doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2018.07.025. Web. 03 Sept. 2018.

  • Jazaieri, Hooria, et al. “A Wandering Mind Is a Less Caring Mind: Daily Experience Sampling during Compassion Meditation Training.” The Journal of Positive Psychology, vol. 11, no. 1, 2015, pp. 37–50., doi:10.1080/17439760.2015.1025418. Web. 03 Sept. 2018.

  • Jazaieri, Hooria, et al. “Altering the Trajectory of Affect and Affect Regulation: the Impact of Compassion Training.” Mindfulness, vol. 9, no. 1, 2017, pp. 283–293., doi:10.1007/s12671-017-0773-3. Web. 03 Sept. 2018.

  • Kral, Tammi R.a., et al. “Impact of Short- and Long-Term Mindfulness Meditation Training on Amygdala Reactivity to Emotional Stimuli.” NeuroImage, vol. 181, 2018, pp. 301–313., doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.07.013. Web. 03 Sept. 2018.

  • Urgyen, et al. Rainbow Painting: A Collection of Miscellaneous Aspects of Development and Completion. Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 2009. Print.

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Image credit: The Human Connectome Project