Meditation comes in many forms, from Transcendental to Mindfulness, traditional Buddhist to Heartfulness, amongst others. While the practices involved in these various models of meditation are variable, the outcomes show many similarities in the cognitive-behavioral, physiological, and neuroscientific respects. Here, we will discuss the various findings revealed by neuroscientific research detailing the potential benefits of meditative practices on brain function, health and longevity. First, however, we must briefly describe the major forms of meditation herein discussed.
Mindfulness meditation (MM) is perhaps the most popular current form of meditation in Western culture, originally derived by Jon Kabat-Zinn from the traditional Vipassana practice. At its core, MM aims to train one to access a state of “mindfulness” characterized by “an attentive and nonjudgmental monitoring of moment-by-moment cognition, emotion, sensation and perception” without a focus on either the past or the future. Its primary benefits appear to be regulation of attention, emotion, and self-awareness, leading to reductions in the symptoms of such disorders as Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and chronic depression. Recently, MM has been adopted in a number of forms for targeted psychotherapeutic application, from Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), as well as in the treatment of substance-abuse disorders.
First brought to Western attention by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and rising to popularity in the late 1960s, transcendental meditation (TM) focuses largely on the use of mantras, or repetitive phrases or sayings, which are used to entrain consciousness to a rhythm. TM does not prescribe specific positions or breathing exercises, and is thus amongst the most accessible forms of meditation. TM has been associated with reductions in anxiety and corresponding cortisol and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) levels, increased dopamine and serotonin, and increased creativity and concentration, amongst many other potential benefits.
While nearly all forms of meditation currently used in Western culture and medicine have been derived from Buddhist tradition, many have been stripped of their secular characteristics in order to appeal to a non-Buddhist population. Amongst these, the Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana and Hindu Tantric practices are the most common. However, unlike many of the aforementioned adaptations of these practices, traditional Buddhist meditation techniques have been used in equal measure to promote both relaxation and arousal, depending on the technique and intention. In the cases of Vajrayana and Hindu Tantric practices in particular, meditation is used as a means of achieving a phasic state of alertness and enhanced attentional processes.
Breath and Mind-Body Training/ Heartfulness Meditation
Heartfulness Meditation (HM), put simply, is meditation that directs an individual to focus entirely on their heart. Similarly to other techniques which use a mantra or a breath-based focal point, HM promotes a rhythmic entrainment of the brain which can induce a state of relaxation. HM itself has been associated with increased overall emotional wellness measures, as well as significant changes to cardiovascular function amongst practitioners. Similarly, mind-body practice (sometimes referred to as brain-mind-body meditation) refers to the category of meditative practices including Tai Chi, Qigong and other training exercises that emphasize the connectivity between mental states and body states.
Meditation and the Brain
Research into the effects of meditation on the brain has burgeoned in the late 20th and early 21st centuries thanks to the advent of non-invasive brain imaging in humans. Indeed, due to the difficulty of modeling meditative states in animals, human data remain the sole source of information regarding the neurological correlates of meditation. To date, studies of this nature have identified changes in connectivity between brain regions, altered oxygen and blood flow to the brain both during and following meditation, long-term changes in measures of depression and anxiety, as well as the mediation of physical states such as pain and immune function.
Treating Disorders and Disease-States with Meditation
Meditation has been investigated as a therapeutic intervention tool for both the acute and chronic symptoms of depression and anxiety. These effects have been shown consistently across varied age-groups as well as multiple languages. A study published in 2019, using a randomized, controlled comparative study format to investigate the effects of a mindfulness meditation practice on the symptoms of depression in adults, found that the practice is indeed effective and equally so in both English and Spanish-speaking populations. This cross-cultural confirmation of meditation’s positive effects on emotional wellbeing highlights the potential usefulness of the practice for addressing such psychiatric disorders as depression and anxiety.
Another major component of psychiatric risk for depression and anxiety is resilience-quotient, which is an individual’s ability to rebound from adversity or challenges. While increased resiliency has long been associated with meditation practices, a study published in March of 2019 was the first to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in order to identify the neural correlates of this adaptive change. By comparing baseline brain activity and connectivity before and after either a focused meditation retreat or a non-directed relaxation retreat (in this case, the ‘control’ group), the authors were able to identify changes in resting connectivity between cortical brain regions which were strongly correlated with lasting changes in resiliency. Specifically, they found increased connectivity between the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (a region known to be associated with reward perception and decision making) and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which has been identified as the locus of our sense of “self.” This important enhanced connectivity was observed to be much stronger in participants who meditated versus those who simply relaxed, and was sustained for several months following the practice, an observation which correlated strongly with the duration of increased emotional and mental resiliency.
Attention, Learning and Memory
Amongst the many benefits of meditation practice is the enhancement of learning and memory, presumptively a result of the increased focus and attention reported by regular meditators. Considering the brain as a labile muscle, the concentration practice achieved via meditation can be thought of as exercise for this important organ. Thus, long-term meditation has been shown to enhance memory function in both young, healthy and aged populations.
Interestingly, the effects of intensive meditation practice differ with regards to attention when observed between practiced and novice meditators. For instance, a 2018 study compared the brain functions of experienced and novice zen Buddhist meditators during a memory and attention task both before and after a focused 7-day retreat practicing mindfulness meditation. The researchers found that while meditation induced changes in both groups’ brain regions associated with attention (such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), the experienced meditators exhibited both baseline and post-retreat differences as compared to the novice meditators. As a whole, the researchers found that attention-mediating brain circuitry showed a decrease in overall activity, indicating increased efficiency (since scores on the memory task either improved or did not change) following meditation. However, this effect was significantly more pronounced in the novice meditators as compared to the experienced meditators, suggesting long-lasting plasticity which precludes this effect following chronic meditation practice like that performed by the experienced group.
Default Consciousness and Neurostability
Not unlike the beating of a heart or the expansion and contraction of lungs, the brain is normally engaged in a rhythmic standard setting, sometimes referred to as default consciousness. In theory, this default setting can be corrupted over time, leading to chronic neuropsychiatric diseases such as depression and anxiety. Thus, therapeutic interventions, which disrupt default consciousness (and thus allow for a state of malleability), may prove useful for the treatment of these conditions. Recently, both EEG and fMRI data collected in people participating in meditation practice have revealed that meditation may be an effective means of achieving this type of disruption.
One study investigating this phenomenon was published earlier this year and used EEG-based brain activity analysis to observe neurological correlates of meditation as performed by experienced practitioners of Jhāna meditation, a relatively modern branch of Buddhist meditation which aims to direct focus towards an inward state of stillness. When this state of so-called Jhāna consciousness during meditation was observed by the researchers, they found that the EEG data resembled that of stage 2-4 non-REM sleep and, in some cases, high-voltage coma activity. These data exhibit a strong decoupling of the neurological circuitry underlying default consciousness and awareness, and beckons further research to determine how transient or lasting these effects may be.
Comparing both novice and experienced practitioners of mindfulness meditation, researchers in Barcelona found that meditation increases metaplasticity, or the state of flexibility following disruption of the default neurological mode. By evaluating fMRI data from individuals both at rest and during meditation, the researchers found that not only was the default consciousness network activity disrupted during meditation in both novice and highly-experienced meditators, but that this practice lead to increased plasticity and a wider range of connectivity patterns (indicating less reliance on default networks) in the expert, but not novice meditators. Indeed, those individuals who had practiced mindfulness meditation for a minimum of 1,000 hours over daily practice showed significantly increased complexity and variability of brain-state connectivity at rest when compared to the control group. Along with their findings on reductions in default-mode consciousness networks during meditation itself, these data suggest that a sustained mindfulness meditation practice reduces the brain’s reliance on these habitual patterns and thereby increases the range of potential connectivity pathways on a more permanent basis.
Additional studies have drawn similar conclusions regarding meditation’s influence on the default mode network of brain function. For instance, a 2018 paper examining functional connectivity between brain regions using fMRI identified a significant reduction in connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex and the striatum, a key pathway in the default mode network of the brain. Interestingly, this effect was found to be consistent between multiple forms of meditation (focused attention and monitored attention meditation, both forms of mindfulness meditation), suggesting an important and persistent mechanism of action for the disruption of default mode consciousness in the brains of meditators.
Peripheral impacts of meditation
Aside from the above-discussed effects of meditation on neurological function, meditation practice has been shown to impact numerous functions of the peripheral nervous system, including pain perception, and even core cellular metabolism at the level of the mitochondria. As the field of research into the peripheral effects of meditation practice continues to grow, these surprising outcomes of behavioral training will surely continue to emerge.
Clearly, meditation profoundly impacts the functions of the brain in addition to exhibiting other biological effects. From an intervention strategy for the treatment of chronic depression to improving memory function during cognitive decline, meditation appears to have a profound effect on neurological function. In addition to these findings, recent and emerging data indicate that the practice of meditation may similarly alter such non-neuronal biological systems as pain processing and energy metabolism, indicating a truly holistic mind-body impact from a relatively simple, cost-free therapeutic strategy. While the field of research into meditation and its substantial effects on the human brain and body is still developing, the data that have thus far been unveiled support a prominent role for meditative practice in a wide range of medical conditions.
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