New Study Demonstrates Lasting Emotional Benefits of Meditation
April Flowers for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Meditation has been part of the human experience for at least 5,000 years. Our first written records of the ancient art are found in Indian scriptures, called tantras. Around 2,500 years ago, Siddhartha Gautma, commonly called Buddha, began teaching meditation as a road to enlightenment. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that Western professors and researchers began studying the effects of mediation in earnest.
Participating in an 8-week meditation training program can have measurable effects on how the brain functions even when someone is not actively meditating, according to a new study led by researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Boston University (BU). The findings, published in the latest issue of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, show differences in those effects based on the specific type of meditation practiced.
“The two different types of meditation training our study participants completed yielded some differences in the response of the amygdala – a part of the brain known for decades to be important for emotion – to images with emotional content,” says Gaëlle Desbordes, a PhD research fellow at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH and at the BU Center for Computational Neuroscience and Neural Technology.
“This is the first time that meditation training has been shown to affect emotional processing in the brain outside of a meditative state.”
Meditation training improves practitioners’ emotional regulation according to previous studies, by reducing activity in the amygdala – a structure at the base of the brain that is known to have a role in processing memory and emotion. Previous neuroimaging studies showed that those changes were only observed while study participants were meditating. The current study, however, tests a new hypothesis – that meditation training could also produce a generalized reduction in amygdala response to emotional stimuli. The team attempted to measure this response using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
The participants in this study were enrolled in a larger investigation into the effects of two forms of meditation at Emory University. Healthy adults who had never meditated before participated in 8-week courses in one of the two forms – mindful attention meditation and compassion meditation. Mindful attention is the form most commonly studied, which focuses on developing attention and awareness of breathing, thoughts and emotions. Compassion meditation, on the other hand includes methods designed to develop loving kindness and compassion for oneself and others. A third, control, group participated in an 8-week health education course.
Three weeks before and three weeks after the training, 12 participants from each group underwent fMRI in Boston at the Martinos Center’s imaging facilities. Volunteers viewed a series of 216 images – 108 per session – of people in situations with either positive, negative, or neutral emotional content as their brains were scanned. The researchers did not mention meditation before the sessions, and confirmed afterwards that the participants had not meditated in the scanner. Assessments of depression and anxiety symptoms were completed before and after the training as well.
The results were varied. Post-training brain scans of the mindful attention group showed a decrease in activation of the right amygdala in response to all images. This supports the hypothesis that meditation can improve emotional stability and response to stress. The compassion meditation group also showed a decrease in right amygdala activity, but only in response to positive or neutral images. Subjects who reported practicing compassion meditation outside of the training session showed an increase in activity in the right amygdala when viewing negative images – all of which depicted some form of human suffering. The left amygdala showed no significant changes in any group.
“We think these two forms of meditation cultivate different aspects of mind,” Desbordes explains. “Since compassion meditation is designed to enhance compassionate feelings, it makes sense that it could increase amygdala response to seeing people suffer. Increased amygdala activation was also correlated with decreased depression scores in the compassion meditation group, which suggests that having more compassion towards others may also be beneficial for oneself. Overall, these results are consistent with the overarching hypothesis that meditation may result in enduring, beneficial changes in brain function, especially in the area of emotional processing.”