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The Science of Meditation & Mindfulness

The science of mindfulness is an exciting development in neuroscientific research. On this page are posted brief synopses of key studies in the field, followed by a brief summary (highlighted).

Functional Brain Mapping of the Relaxation Response and Meditation

Sara Lazar et al. reported in 20001 a strongly significant finding of brain activation (up to p < 10-7) in numerous regions of the brain in experienced meditators, including structures involved in attention (frontal & parietal cortex), emotional arousal and regulation (anterior cingulate, amygdala, midbrain & hypothalamus). In other words meditation consistently activates distinct regions in the brain.

Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation

An article by neuroscientist Richard Davidson et al. (2003)2 associated significantly stronger immune responsein meditators to flu vaccine (compared to non-meditators) and anterior left brain activation. The subjects were participants in an 8-week program on meditation. Immune response was measured by antibody titer to flu vaccine. This study points to the likelihood that the effects of meditation reach deep into the neurophysiological systems of the human body in a positive way. This study also measured brain electrical activity, and the authors suggest that anterior left brain activation is suggestive of stronger capacity to adapt to negative emotion and the generation of positive emotion.

Meditation Experience is Associated with Increased Cortical Thickness

Sara Lazar et al. reported in 20053 that meditation correlated with an increased cortical thickness (right hemisphere) offsetting age-related frontal cortical thinning (loss of brain cells). Specifically mentioned were parts of the brain associated with meditation such as attention & bodily awareness (prefrontal cortex and insula). What is important about this study is the scientific demonstration that meditation actually causes the structure of the brain to change, in areas that psychologists now know to be extremely important in emotional regulation and social processing.

In 2005, at the Mind Life Conference at Johns Hopkins University, Wolf Singer (Max Planck Institute for Brain Research) presents to the Dalai Lama his research on meditation and the brain. Given the highly distributed nature of the brain system, a key function of the brain is to organize scattered or distributed aspects of a given event or percept, drawing upon different regions in the brain that process the features of that event or percept. Singer suggests that when such binding or organization is taking place neurons fire in a synchronous, oscillatory pattern that is characteristic of attentiveness. Meditation has been found to be associated with this type of brain activity that is associated with mental coherence and higher levels of brain activity and efficiency.

Long-Term Meditation is Associated with Increased Gray Matter Density in the Brain Stem

Vestergaard-Poulsen et. al. reported in 20094 that they found changes in the structure of the lower brainstem, by density (versus volume) as well as in the superior and inferior gyrus. Combined with previous studies that demonstrated that meditation improved vagal tone (heart rate, blood pressure) and improved immune response, their study added another piece of the puzzle to a complex brain / immune system / stress response / emotional processing. In other words, meditation increasingly looks like it taps into deep and powerful pathways in the brain, that make a person more likely to be able to resist stress and function alertly.

Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increases in Regional Brain Gray Matter Density.

Hölzel et al. demonstrated in 20115 long-term changes to the brain gray matter (cells & synapses) for people participating in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, specifically in the hippocampus as well as other brain structures including cerebellar. Like Davidson’s (2003) study these findings suggest that even a little bit of mindfulness practice can go a long way. They also demonstrate a pattern of expanding regions of brain involvement relevant to mindfulness activity.

See also

Footnotes

  • 1 Lazar, S. W., Bush, G., Gollub, R. L., Fricchione, G. L., Khalsa, G., & Benson, H. (2000). Functional brain mapping of the relaxation response and meditation: NeuroReport, 11(7), 1581.
  • 2 Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., et al. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation: Psychosomatic Medicine Journal, 65(4), 564-570.
  • 3 Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., Treadway, M. T., et al. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness: NeuroReport, 16(17), 1893.
  • 4 Vestergaard-Poulsen, P., van Beek, M., Skewes, J., Bjarkam, C. R., Stubberup, M., Bertelsen, J., et al. (2009). Long-term meditation is associated with increased gray matter density in the brain stem: NeuroReport, 20(2), 170.
  • 5 Hoelzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., et al. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density: Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191(1), 36-43.
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