Meditation and its effect on brain activity

The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation

Nature Reviews Neuroscience
16,
213–225
doi:10.1038/nrn3916
Published online

Abstract

Research over the past two decades broadly supports the claim that mindfulness meditation — practiced widely for the reduction of stress and promotion of health — exerts beneficial effects on physical and mental health, and cognitive performance. Recent neuroimaging studies have begun to uncover the brain areas and networks that mediate these positive effects. However, the underlying neural mechanisms remain unclear, and it is apparent that more methodologically rigorous studies are required if we are to gain a full understanding of the neuronal and molecular bases of the changes in the brain that accompany mindfulness meditation.


Ann N Y Acad Sci. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2011 Mar 15.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC3057175
NIHMSID: NIHMS221333

Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres

Abstract

Understanding the malleable determinants of cellular aging is critical to understanding human longevity. Telomeres may provide a pathway for exploring this question. Telomeres are the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes. The length of telomeres offers insight into mitotic cell and possibly organismal longevity. Telomere length has now been linked to chronic stress exposure and depression. This raises the question of how might cellular aging be modulated by psychological functioning.

We consider two psychological processes or states that are in opposition to one another–threat cognition and mindfulness–and their effects on cellular aging. Psychological stress cognitions, particularly appraisals of threat and ruminative thoughts, can lead to prolonged states of reactivity. In contrast, mindfulness meditation techniques appear to shift cognitive appraisals from threat to challenge, decrease ruminative thought, and reduce stress arousal. Mindfulness may also directly increase positive arousal states.

We review data linking telomere length to cognitive stress and stress arousal and present new data linking cognitive appraisal to telomere length. Given the pattern of associations revealed so far, we propose that some forms of meditation may have salutary effects on telomere length by reducing cognitive stress and stress arousal and increasing positive states of mind and hormonal factors that may promote telomere maintenance. Aspects of this model are currently being tested in ongoing trials of mindfulness meditation.

Keywords: meditation, mindfulness, stress, appraisal, rumination, telomere length, telomerase


Mindfulness means to quietly observe & become aware of your habitual thinking patterns, not blindly accept them.
When we see those patterns we automatically begin to let go of of the negative stuff that is counterproductive.

Chuang Tzu and Confucius, were nearly opposites philosophically.

Published on Apr 16, 2016
Asian philosophies have proven extremely influential in the United States, but are they being interpreted correctly? Frequently not, says Harvard China historian Michael Puett, who focuses on two main ideas in this video: one transported relatively recently to the United States, and another that sheds new light on the so-called naturalistic fallacy.

First up is mindfulness meditation: a practice that has become all the rage for anyone looking to live calmer, more focussed lives. It sounds innocent enough, says Puett, but the goal of distancing yourself from negative emotion presents real risks. If you find a way to cope with negative emotion without changing the material circumstances around you — focusing on internal sources of stress to the exclusion of external ones — you may begin to accept harmful treatment.

This is likewise the case with “finding your true self,” which Puett claims is little more than accepting your circumstances and normalizing potentially destructive patterns of behavior. When we search for ourselves, we search for some authentic, natural self. But putting nature on a pedestal ignores the very real call to action that Chinese philosophy presents.

Puett’s latest book is “The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life”

Some thirty-five years ago, Herbert Benson, M.D., sought a blending of sound scientific data and ancient teachings from both Eastern and Western traditions, what he called the relaxation response, which is innate within all humans and can be evoked through several different techniques.

The elements required to meditate are a quiet environment, a comfortable position, a passive attitude, and a mental device. Of course, there are any number of ways to practice. In fact, for some spiritual teachers, meditation is practicing mindfulness about whatever it is you are doing in any given moment.

Mindfulness is the practice of bringing one’s attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment,[1] which can be developed through the practice of meditation.[1] The term “mindfulness” is a translation of the Pali-term sati,[2] which is a significant element of some Buddhist traditions. The popular mindfulness movement was initiated by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Large population-based research studies have indicated that the practice of mindfulness is strongly correlated with well-being and perceived health.[3][4] Studies have also shown that rumination and worry contribute to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety,[5][6] and that mindfulness-based interventions are effective in the reduction of both rumination and worry.[5][7]

Clinical psychology and psychiatry since the 1970s have developed a number of therapeutic applications based on mindfulness for helping people who are experiencing a variety of psychological conditions.[8] Mindfulness practice is being employed in psychology to alleviate a variety of mental and physical conditions, such as bringing about reductions in depression symptoms,[9][10][11] reducing stress,[10][12][13]anxiety,[9][10][13] and in the treatment of drug addiction.[14][15][16] It has gained worldwide popularity as a distinctive method to handle emotions.

Clinical studies have documented the physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness in general, and MBSR in particular.[17][18][19]Programs based on MBSR and similar models have been widely adapted in schools, prisons, hospitals, veterans centers, and other environments.

Georges Dreyfus has expressed unease with the definition of mindfulness as “bare attention” or “nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness”, stressing that mindfulness in Buddhist context means also “remembering”, which indicates that the function of mindfulness also includes the retention of information. Robert H. Sharf notes that Buddhist practice is aimed at the attainment of “correct view”, not just “bare attention”. Jay Garfield, quoting Shantideva and other sources, stresses that mindfulness is constituted by the union of two functions, calling to mind and vigilantly retaining in mind. He demonstrates that there is a direct connection between the practice of mindfulness and the cultivation of morality – at least in the context of Buddhism from which modern interpretations of mindfulness are stemming.[87]


PLOS


Study reveals gene expression changes with meditation

Date:
December 8, 2013
Source:
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Summary:
With evidence growing that meditation can have beneficial health effects, scientists have sought to understand how these practices physically affect the body. A new study reports the first evidence of specific molecular changes in the body following a period of mindfulness meditation.

Abstract

Previous research indicates that long-term meditation practice is associated with altered resting electroencephalogram patterns, suggestive of long lasting changes in brain activity. We hypothesized that meditation practice might also be associated with changes in the brain’s physical structure. Magnetic resonance imaging was used to assess cortical thickness in 20 participants with extensive Insight meditation experience, which involves focused attention to internal experiences. Brain regions associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing were thicker in meditation participants than matched controls, including the prefrontal cortex and right anterior insula. Between-group differences in prefrontal cortical thickness were most pronounced in older participants, suggesting that meditation might offset age-related cortical thinning. Finally, the thickness of two regions correlated with meditation experience. These data provide the first structural evidence for experience-dependent cortical plasticity associated with meditation practice.

Keywords: insula, meditation, plasticity, prefrontal cortex


Abstract

Therapeutic interventions that incorporate training in mindfulness meditation have become increasingly popular, but to date, little is known about neural mechanisms associated with these interventions. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), one of the most widely used mindfulness training programs, has been reported to produce positive effects on psychological well-being and to ameliorate symptoms of a number of disorders. Here, we report a controlled longitudinal study to investigate pre-post changes in brain gray matter concentration attributable to participation in an MBSR program. Anatomical MRI images from sixteen healthy, meditation-naïve participants were obtained before and after they underwent the eight-week program. Changes in gray matter concentration were investigated using voxel-based morphometry, and compared to a wait-list control group of 17 individuals. Analyses in a priori regions of interest confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR group compared to the controls. The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.

Keywords: meditation, mindfulness, voxel based morphometry, gray matter, longitudinal, hippocampus, posterior cingulate


Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation.

Abstract

OBJECTIVE:

The underlying changes in biological processes that are associated with reported changes in mental and physical health in response to meditation have not been systematically explored. We performed a randomized, controlled study on the effects on brain and immune function of a well-known and widely used 8-week clinical training program in mindfulness meditation applied in a work environment with healthy employees.

METHODS:

We measured brain electrical activity before and immediately after, and then 4 months after an 8-week training program in mindfulness meditation. Twenty-five subjects were tested in the meditation group. A wait-list control group (N = 16) was tested at the same points in time as the meditators. At the end of the 8-week period, subjects in both groups were vaccinated with influenza vaccine.

RESULTS:

We report for the first time significant increases in left-sided anterior activation, a pattern previously associated with positive affect, in the meditators compared with the nonmeditators. We also found significant increases in antibody titers to influenza vaccine among subjects in the meditation compared with those in the wait-list control group. Finally, the magnitude of increase in left-sided activation predicted the magnitude of antibody titer rise to the vaccine.

CONCLUSIONS:

These findings demonstrate that a short program in mindfulness meditation produces demonstrable effects on brain and immune function. These findings suggest that meditation may change brain and immune function in positive ways and underscore the need for additional research.

Meditation and its effect on brain activity and the central nervous system became a focus of collaborative research in neuroscience,psychology and neurobiology during the latter half of the 20th century. Research on meditation sought to define and characterize various practices. Meditation’s effect on the brain can be broken up into two categories: state changes and trait changes, respectively alterations in brain activities during the act of meditating and changes that are the outcome of long-term practice.

Mindfulness meditation is frequently studied, a Buddhist meditation approach found in Zen and Vipassana.[1][2] Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness meditation as a complete, unbiased attention to the current moment.[3]

Brain trait changes have also been observed in neuroimaging studies, most often employing fMRI. In a meta-analysis of 21 neuroimaging studies, eight brain regions were found to be consistently altered, including areas key to meta-awareness (frontopolar cortex/Brodmann area 10), exteroceptive and interoceptive body awareness (sensory cortex and insular cortex), memory consolidation and reconsolidation (hippocampus), self and emotion regulation (anterior cingulate cortex and orbitofrontal cortex), and intra- and interhemispheric communication (superior longitudinal fasciculus; corpus callosum)[13] These changes were distinguished by density increases in grey matter regions and white matter pathways in the brains of individuals who meditate in comparison to individuals who do not. Of all areas with reported findings, a greater number of structural changes were found in the left hemisphere.

There is also evidence to suggest meditation plays a protective role against the natural reduction in grey matter volume associated with aging. One study found evidence that Zen meditators experienced a slower age related decline rate for cerebral gray matter volume in the putamen which plays a role in learning, cognitive flexibility and attentional processing [14] This could suggest a better attentiveness in aging meditators versus non-meditators.

Long-term meditation practitioners have also shown to have a higher tolerance for pain.[15] This effect has been correlated to altered function and structure in somatosensory cortices and an increased ability to decouple regions in the brain associated with the cognitive appraisal of pain (anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex).[16]

The brain state changes found in meditators are almost exclusively found in higher-order executive and association cortices.[13] This supports the notion that meditation increases self-regulation and attentiveness. Recent studies have also investigated how these changes may alter the functionality and connectivity of the default mode network, which is a hypothesized network of brain regions that are active when an individual is engaged in internal tasks such as daydreaming.

Besides scientific literature, some authors have written of the promising research on meditation in books targeted for general audiences. One such book, Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson, PhD shares the current scientific research and investigations into meditation.[19] Hanson, a neuroscientist and researcher, explains to readers the scientific studies in plain language and discuss the impact of the results. Hanson’s main argument is that positive emotions, like love can be strengthened through meditation in a neuroplastic manner, citing dozens of scientific studies to support this claim.[19] Hanson’s viewpoint is representative of a larger popular movement to study and embrace Eastern phenomena including meditation in the Western world.

Critics, like Owen Flanagan, PhD, believe that Hanson, and those like him, are overextending the results of current scientific studies. In his book Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, Flanagan presents a more conservative viewpoint of current scientific research and cautions readers against the seemingly exciting results of recent studies.[20] Flanagan does not believe current science supports the idea that positive emotion can be strengthened in the same way that stroke victims can recover use of limbs with use.[20] Flanagan does acknowledge that meditation may be beneficial in some way, but the mechanism of how meditation affects the brain is still clouded.[20] Flanagan and Hanson use many of the same scientific studies to attempt to support their differing viewpoint, but both authors identify the need and importance of future studies investigating meditation.

Mindfulness is the practice of bringing one’s attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment,[1] which can be developed through the practice of meditation.[1] The term “mindfulness” is a translation of the Pali-term sati,[2] which is a significant element of some Buddhist traditions. The popular mindfulness movement was initiated by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Large population-based research studies have indicated that the practice of mindfulness is strongly correlated with well-being and perceived health.[3][4] Studies have also shown that rumination and worry contribute to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety,[5][6] and that mindfulness-based interventions are effective in the reduction of both rumination and worry.[5][7]

Clinical psychology and psychiatry since the 1970s have developed a number of therapeutic applications based on mindfulness for helping people who are experiencing a variety of psychological conditions.[8] Mindfulness practice is being employed in psychology to alleviate a variety of mental and physical conditions, such as bringing about reductions in depression symptoms,[9][10][11] reducing stress,[10][12][13]anxiety,[9][10][13] and in the treatment of drug addiction.[14][15][16] It has gained worldwide popularity as a distinctive method to handle emotions.

Clinical studies have documented the physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness in general, and MBSR in particular.[17][18][19]Programs based on MBSR and similar models have been widely adapted in schools, prisons, hospitals, veterans centers, and other environments.

Various scholars have criticized how mindfulness has been defined or represented in recent western psychology publications.[56][128] These modern understandings depart significantly from the accounts of mindfulness in early Buddhist texts and authoritative commentaries in the Theravada and Indian Mahayana traditions.[128]:62[129] Adam Valerio has introduced the idea that conflict between academic disciplines over how mindfulness is defined, understood, and popularly presented may be indicative of a personal, institutional, or paradigmatic battle for ownership over mindfulness, one where academics, researchers, and other writers are invested as individuals in much the same way as religious communities.[130]

The popularization of mindfulness as a “commodity”[131] has been criticized, being termed “McMindfulness” by some critics.[web 8][web 9][132] According to Safran, the popularity of mindfulness is the result of a marketing strategy:[131] “McMindfulness is the marketing of a constructed dream; an idealized lifestyle; an identity makeover.”[131][133][134]

According to Purser and Loy, mindfulness is not being used as a means to awaken to insight in the “unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion,”[web 8] but reshaped into a “banal, therapeutic, self-help technique” that has the opposite effect of reinforcing those passions.[web 8] While mindfulness is marketed as a means to reduce stress, in a Buddhist context it is part of an all-embracing ethical program to foster “wise action, social harmony, and compassion.”[web 8] The privatization of mindfulness neglects the societal and organizational causes of stress and discomfort, instead propagating adaptation to these circumstances.[web 8] According to Bhikkhu Bodhi, “[A]bsent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.”[web 8] The popularity of this new brand of mindfulness has resulted in the commercialization of meditation through self-help books, guided meditation classes, and mindfulness retreats.

Buddhist commentators have criticized the movement as being presented as equivalent to Buddhists practice; however, possibly denatured with undesirable consequences, such as being ungrounded in the traditional reflective morality and, as astray from traditional buddhists ethics. Criticisms suggest it to be de-moralized or, re-moralized Buddhism into clinically based ethics. The conflict is often presented in concern to the teacher’s credentials and qualifications, rather than the student’s actual practice. Reformed Buddhist influenced practices are being standardized and manualized in a clearly distinct separation from Buddhism seen as a religion based in monastic temples; and, as mindfulness in a new psychology ethic practiced in modern meditation centers.[135]


Short-term autonomic and cardiovascular effects of mindfulness body scan meditation.

Abstract

BACKGROUND:

Recent research suggests that the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program has positive effects on health, but little is known about the immediate physiological effects of different components of the program.

PURPOSE:

To examine the short-term autonomic and cardiovascular effects of one of the techniques employed in mindfulness meditation training, a basic body scan meditation.

METHODS:

In Study 1, 32 healthy young adults (23 women, 9 men) were assigned randomly to either a meditation, progressive muscular relaxation or wait-list control group. Each participated in two laboratory sessions 4 weeks apart in which they practiced their assigned technique. In Study 2, using a within-subjects design, 30 healthy young adults (15 women, 15 men) participated in two laboratory sessions in which they practiced meditation or listened to an audiotape of a popular novel in counterbalanced order. Heart rate, cardiac respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), and blood pressure were measured in both studies. Additional measures derived from impedance cardiography were obtained in Study 2.

RESULTS:

In both studies, participants displayed significantly greater increases in RSA while meditating than while engaging in other relaxing activities. A significant decrease in cardiac pre-ejection period was observed while participants meditated in Study 2. This suggests that simultaneous increases in cardiac parasympathetic and sympathetic activity may explain the lack of an effect on heart rate. Female participants in Study 2 exhibited a significantly larger decrease in diastolic blood pressure during meditation than the novel, whereas men had greater increases in cardiac output during meditation compared to the novel.

CONCLUSIONS:

The results indicate both similarities and differences in the physiological responses to body scan meditation and other relaxing activities.

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