What Does Science Have to Say?

I’m often asked what science is saying about meditation. A lot of research has been done over the last 30 years which has revealed some fascinating insights into the effects that meditation has on the brain. In recent years a myriad of benefits have also been reported in the media. So much so that sometimes it can seem like meditation is a magical cure for everything! With this in mind, it’s important to apply a critical mind when looking at these reports but reflecting on the results of well conducted studies is very revealing and can help motivate us to continue with our own meditation practice.

It should be mentioned here that we shouldn’t underestimate our own research. We experience first-hand how our own meditation is impacting us, and it can be helpful to evaluate from time to time how our meditation is going and what benefits we observe.

This brief summary takes extensively from Andy Fraser’s review of the book, Altered Traits by Richard Davidson and Daniel Goleman, with input also from Marieke Van Vugt, assistant professor of neuroscience at Groningen University. Thanks to both of you.

Over to you Andy…

There are so many studies out there that it’s sometimes difficult to see the wood from the trees. That’s why I was happy to see that two highly respected figures from the field of ‘contemplative neuroscience’, Richard Davidson and Daniel Goleman, have teamed up to offer an in-depth analysis of the existing research, in a new book called Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.

One section of the book offers a fascinating summary of what happens to the brains of three different kinds of meditators: beginners, long-term, and ‘world-class’ practitioners. It’s basically an attempt to map out how our brain’s structure, and therefore our experience and behaviour, changes the more we meditate.

Here’s my attempt to pull out the key points for those with short attention spans (with apologies to the authors for any accidental journalistic licence). The full book extract is here if you want to check whether I’ve done it justice.

Beginners

(between 7 and 100 hours of meditation practice)

The vast majority of meditators in the West fall into this category, practising for a few minutes to half an hour on most days.

Stress and emotions

There’s limited concrete scientific evidence that beginners are able to recover better from stress, although that’s what people report. But the amygdala, which plays a central role in the brain’s stress circuitry, shows less reactivity after 30 hours of an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course.

Empathy and compassion

Just seven hours of compassion meditation over two weeks leads to increased connectivity in brain circuits important for empathy and positive feelings. This can be observed even when people are not actually meditating.

Focus and attention

People’s minds wander less after just eight minutes of mindfulness practice, and just two weeks of practice results in less mind-wandering and better focus and working memory. This effect significantly boosted scores on the GRE, the entrance exam for graduate school in the US.

Self-preoccupation

Some findings suggest decreases in activation in the self-relevant regions of the brain’s default mode with as little as two months of practice.

Biological changes

There are small improvements in the molecular markers of cellular aging after just 30 hours of practice.

The authors conclude that “all such effects are unlikely to persist without sustained practice. Even so, these benefits strike us as surprisingly strong for beginners. Take-home: practicing meditation can pay off quickly in some ways, even if you have just started.”

Long-term meditators

(between 1,000 and 10,000 hours – average of 9,000 [1])

This applies to a far smaller group of meditators who have practiced over many years. The benefits experienced by beginners deepen as a result of continuing to practice, and other effects emerge.

Stress and emotions

Connectivity in a circuit of the brain important for emotion regulation is strengthened. Cortisol, a key hormone produced by the adrenal gland in response to stress, lessens.

Empathy and compassion

Loving-kindness and compassion practice enhance neural resonance with another person’s suffering, along with concern and a greater likelihood of actually helping.

Focus and attention

Attention strengthens in various ways: selective attention sharpens, the attentional blink (failing to notice small changes in your environment) diminishes, sustained attention becomes easier, and an alert readiness to respond increases.

Self-preoccupation

There is enhanced ability to down-regulate the mind-wandering and self-obsessed thoughts of the brain’s default mode, as well as weakening connectivity within those circuits—signifying less self-preoccupation.

Biological changes

There are shifts in very basic biological processes, such as a slower breath rate, after several thousand hours of practice. A day-long retreat by seasoned meditators boosted their immune response at the genetic level—a finding that startled the medical establishment.

The yogis

(average of 27,000 lifetime hours, and had done at least one Tibetan style three-year retreat [2])

Only a handful of meditators fall into this category. At this level, “truly remarkable effects emerge”. Meditation states merge with daily activities, as altered states become enduring characteristics.

Stress and emotions

In experiments to measure response to physical pain, the yogis showed little brain activity during anticipation of the pain, an intense but very short peak during the pain, followed by very rapid recovery.

Empathy and compassion

When the yogis meditate on compassion there’s a strengthening of the coupling between heart and brain beyond what is ordinarily seen. The jump in synchronized gamma oscillations initially observed during compassion meditation was also found (albeit to a lesser extent) when they were not practicing. In other words, for the yogis this state has become a trait.

Focus and attention

Instead of requiring mental effort, concentration becomes effortless. The neural circuits for effortful attention go quiet while their attention stays perfectly focused.

Self-preoccupation

Data has shown shrinking in the nucleus accumbens, suggesting we might find further structural changes in the yogi’s brain that support a lessening of attachment, grasping and self-focus.

The authors have also done a great Podcast with Dan Harris where they talk more about the three kinds of meditators, and about the book in general.

[1] These were mainly vipassana meditators. A few had between 20,000 and 30,000 lifetime hours of meditation.

[2] These yogis were studied in Richard Davidson’s lab, and had on average three times more lifetime hours than the long-term meditators. Minimum 12,000 lifetime hours, maximum 62,000 (Tibetan Buddhist monk, Mingyur Rinpoche).

steve cope