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Research on meditation

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Research on the processes and effects of meditation is a growing subfield of neurological research.[1][2][3][4][5][6] Modern scientific techniques and instruments, such as fMRI and EEG, are being used to study the body of people who've engaged in meditation in order to determine both how the process of meditation works and also the effects of meditation on the practitioners.[2][7][8][9][10] Meditation changes the brain and the body.[11] These studies have showed substantial bodily changes as a consequence of regular meditative practice, including growth in regions of the brain activated according to the style of meditation. Meditation is similar to learning other skills like how to ride a bike or play an instrument.[12] Through repeated practice meditation leads to an increase in qualities such as love and empathy, ability to pay attention, greater relaxation, and so on.

Methodological concerns have been raised about the studies done on meditation.[13] Since the 1950s nearly 1,000 studies and still very little is known about this field.[14]

Meditation has historically been practiced within religious traditions especially by monks. Today much of what is considered meditation in the West is secular in nature, for instance mindfulness-based programs.[15] Today mindfulness-based meditative practices have become popular within the wider medical and psychological Western community. For more information see Mindfulness (psychology) and Buddhism and psychology.

Western Therapeutic Use

Meditation has entered the mainstream of health care as a method of stress and pain reduction. As a method of stress reduction, meditation has been used in hospitals in cases of chronic or terminal illness to reduce complications associated with increased stress that include depressed immune systems. There is growing agreement in the medical community that mental factors such as stress significantly contribute to a lack of physical health, and there is a growing movement in mainstream science to fund research in this area. There are now several mainstream health care programs which aid those, both sick and healthy, in promoting their inner well-being, especially those mindfulness based programs.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction

A 2003 meta-analysis found that mindfulness-based stress reduction, which involves continuous awareness of consciousness, without seeking to censor thoughts, concluded that the form of meditation may be broadly useful for individuals attempting to cope with clinical and nonclinical problems. Diagnoses for which MBSR was found to be helpful included chronic pain, fibromyalgia, cancer patients and coronary artery disease. Improvements were noted for both physical and mental health measures.[16]


Mindfulness meditation, anapanasati, and related techniques, are intended to train attention for the sake of provoking insight. A wider, more flexible attention span makes it easier to be aware of a situation, easier to be objective in emotionally or morally difficult situations, and easier to achieve a state of responsive, creative awareness or "flow".[17] Research from Harvard medical school also shows that during meditation, physiological signals show that there is a decrease in respiration and increase in heart rate and blood oxygen saturation levels.[18]

Meditation and stress relief

Sympathetic system activation

The human nervous system is composed of a parasympathetic system and a sympathetic system, dealing with relaxation and arousal, respectively. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has written, "It is thought that some types of meditation might work by reducing activity in the sympathetic nervous system and increasing activity in the parasympathetic nervous system," or equivalently, that meditation produces a reduction in arousal and an increase in relaxation.

Goleman: Amygdala and pre-frontal cortex

One theory, presented by Daniel Goleman & Tara Bennett-Goleman[19] suggests that meditationTemplate:Clarify works because of the relationship between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.[20] In very simple terms, the amygdala is the part of the brain that decides if we should get angry or anxious (among other things), and the pre-frontal cortex is the part that makes us stop and think about things (it is also known as the inhibitory centre). The amygdala first receives emotional signals and sends them to the prefrontal cortex where planning occurs.

The prefrontal cortex is very good at analyzing and planning, but it takes a long time to make decisions. The amygdala, on the other hand, is simpler (and older [21] in evolutionary terms). It makes rapid judgments about a situation and has a powerful effect on our emotions and behaviour, linked to survival needs. For example, if a human sees a lion leaping out at them, the amygdala will trigger a fight or flight response long before the prefrontal cortex responds.

But in making snap judgments, our amygdalas are prone to error because they evolved in times that are so different from our modern ones. Today there are essentially no predators to fight or flee from and yet still the neural circuitry that evolved to deal with them is in place. Today, social conflicts are far more common than encounters with predators, and a basically harmless but emotionally charged situation can trigger uncontrollable fear or anger — leading to conflict, anxiety, and stress.[22]

The Relaxation Response

Dr. Herbert Benson of the Mind-Body Medical Institute, which is affiliated with Harvard University and several Boston hospitals, reports that meditation induces a host of biochemical and physical changes in the body collectively referred to as the "relaxation response."[23] The relaxation response includes changes in metabolism, heart rate, respiration, blood pressure and brain chemistry. Benson and his team have also done clinical studies at Buddhist monasteries in the Himalayan Mountains.Template:Citation needed

Insight meditation

Studies done by Yale, Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital have shown that meditation increases gray matter in the brain and slows down the deterioration of the brain as a part of the natural aging process.

The experiment included 20 individuals with intensive Buddhist "insight meditation" training and 15 who did not meditate. The brain scan revealed that those who meditated have an increased thickness of gray matter in parts of the brain that are responsible for attention and processing sensory input. Some of the participants meditated for 40 minutes a day while others had been doing it for years. The results showed that the change in brain thickness depended upon the amount of time spent in meditation. The increase in thickness ranged between .004 and .008 inches (3.175 x 10−6m - 6.35 x 10 −6m).[24][25][26][27]

Kundalini Yoga meditation

There have been some preliminary studies done on some of the many types of meditation found within the branch of Yoga known as Kundalini. One study showed the cooling of meditators hands as they did their thing and another study showed some relaxation while meditators payed attention to the breaths.

Grey and White Matter

A study involving the participation of a group of colleges students, who were asked to use a meditation technique called integrative body-mind training, concluded that "meditating may improve the integrity and efficiency of certain connections in the brain" through an increase in their number and robustness[28] Brain scans showed strong white matter changes in the anterior cingulate cortex.[29]

Dr. James Austin, a neurophysiologist at the University of Colorado, reported that meditation in Zen "rewires the circuitry" of the brain in his book Zen and the Brain (Austin, 1999). This has been confirmed using functional MRI imaging, a brain scanning technique that measures blood flow in the brain. Template:Citation needed


Fifteen Carmelite nuns came from the monastery to the laboratory to enter a fMRI machine whilst meditating, allowing scientists there to scan their brains using fMRI while they were in a state known as Unio Mystica (and also Theoria).[30] The results showed that far-flung parts of the brain were recruited in the sustaining of this mystical union with God.[30]

Meditation and EEG

Electroencephalograph (EEG) recordings of skilled meditators showed a significant rise in gamma wave activity in the 80 to 120 Hz range during meditation. There was also a rise in the range of 25 to 42 Hz. These meditators had 10 to 40 years of training in Buddhist-based mentalTemplate:Clarify training. EEG done on meditators who had received recent training demonstrated considerably less rise.[31]

The experienced meditators also showed increased gamma activity while at rest and not meditating.[31]

During meditation there is a modest increase in slow alpha or theta wave EEG activity.[31][32]

Chang and Lo found different results, explicable perhaps by the fact they show no sign of even having tested for gamma.[33] First they classify five patterns in meditation based on the normal four frequency ranges (delta < 4 Hz, theta 4 to <8 Hz, alpha 8 to 13 Hz, and beta >13 Hz). The five patterns they found were:

1) delta
2) delta + theta
3) theta + slow alpha
4) high-amplitude alpha
5) amplitude suppressed ("silent and almost flat")

They found pattern #5 unique and characterized by:

1) extremely low power (significant suppression of EEG amplitude)
2) corresponding temporal patterns with no particular EEG rhythm
3) no dominating peak in the spectral distribution

They had collected EEG patterns from more than 50 meditators over the prior five years. Five meditation EEG scenarios are then described. They further state that most meditation is dominated by alpha waves. They found delta and theta waves occurred occasionally, sometimes while people fell asleep and sometimes not. In particular they found the amplitude suppressed pattern correlated with "the feeling of blessings."

O Nuallain,Sean (2009) [34] in Cognitive Sciences 4(2), is the first to interrelate the work on synchronized gamma in consciousness with the well-attested work on gamma in meditation in an experimental context. It adduces experimental and simulated data to show that what both have in common is the ability to put the brain into a state in which it is maximally sensitive and consumes power at a lower (or even zero) rate, briefly. It is argued that this may correspond to a “selfless” state and the more typical non-zero state, in which gamma is not so prominent, corresponds to a state of empirical self. Thus, the “zero power” in the title refers not only to the power spectrum of the brain as measured by the Hilbert transform, but also to a psychological state of personal renunciation.

Meditation and Perception

Studies have shown that meditation has both short-term and long-term effects on various perceptual faculties.

In 1984, Brown et al. conducted a study that measured the absolute threshold of perception for light stimulus duration in practitioners and non-practitioners of mindfulness meditation. The results showed that meditators have a significantly lower detection threshold for light stimuli of short duration.[35]

In 2000, Tloczynski et al. studied the perception of visual illusions (the Müller-Lyer Illusion and the Poggendorff Illusion) by zen masters, novice meditators, and non-meditators. There were no statistically significant effects found for the Müller-Lyer illusion, however, there were for the Poggendorff. The zen masters experienced a statistically significant reduction in initial illusion (measured as error in millimeters) and a lower decrement in illusion for subsequent trials.[36]

The theory of mechanism behind the changes in perception that accompany mindfulness meditation is described thus by Tloczynski:

“A person who meditates consequently perceives objects more as directly experienced stimuli and less as concepts… With the removal or minimization of cognitive stimuli and generally increasing awareness, meditation can therefore influence both the quality (accuracy) and quantity (detection) of perception.”Template:Cite quote

Brown also points to this as a possible explanation of the phenomenon: “[the higher rate of detection of single light flashes] involves quieting some of the higher mental processes which normally obstruct the perception of subtle events.” In other words, the practice may temporarily or permanently alter some of the top-down processing involved in filtering subtle events usually deemed noise by the perceptual filters.

Adverse effects

The following is an official statement from the US government-run National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine:

Meditation is considered to be safe for healthy people. There have been rare reports that meditation could cause or worsen symptoms in people who have certain psychiatric problems, but this question has not been fully researched. People with physical limitations may not be able to participate in certain meditative practices involving physical movement. Individuals with existing mental or physical health conditions should speak with their health care providers prior to starting a meditative practice and make their meditation instructor aware of their condition.[37]

Both positive rewards and potential benefits of meditation have been noted in academic literature. Adverse effects have been reported,[38] and may, in some cases, be the result of "improper use of meditation".[39] The NIH advises prospective meditators to "ask about the training and experience of the meditation instructor... [they] are considering."[37]

Kundalini syndrome is a claimed adverse effect from practicing Kundalini Yoga.

As with any practice, meditation may also be used to avoid facing ongoing problems or emerging crises in the meditator's life. In such situations, it may be helpful to apply mindful attitudes acquired in meditation while actively engaging with current problems.[40] According to the NIH, meditation should not be used as a replacement for conventional health care or as a reason to postpone seeing a doctor.[37]

Research methodologies

A comparison of the effect of various meditation techniques on systolic blood pressure.[41]

In June, 2007 the United States National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) published an independent, peer-reviewed, meta-analysis of the state of meditation research, conducted by researchers at the University of Alberta Evidence-based Practice Center. The report reviewed 813 studies involving five broad categories of meditation: mantra meditation, mindfulness meditation, yoga, T'ai chi, and Qigong, and included all studies on adults through September 2005, with a particular focus on research pertaining to hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and substance abuse.

The report concluded, "Scientific research on meditation practices does not appear to have a common theoretical perspective and is characterized by poor methodological quality. Firm conclusions on the effects of meditation practices in healthcare cannot be drawn based on the available evidence. Future research on meditation practices must be more rigorous in the design and execution of studies and in the analysis and reporting of results." (p. 6) It noted that there is no theoretical explanation of health effects from meditation common to all meditation techniques.[42]

A further analysis of this data set in 2008 reaffirmed the weaknesses of the research, finding that "Most clinical trials on meditation practices are generally characterized by poor methodological quality with significant threats to validity in every major quality domain assessed". This was the conclusion despite a statistically significant increase in quality of all reviewed meditation research, in general, over time between 1956-2005. Of the 400 clinical studies, 10% were found to be good quality. A call was made for rigorous study of meditation.[13] These authors also noted that this finding is not unique to the area of meditation research and that the quality of reporting is a frequent problem in other areas of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) research and related therapy research domains.

In 2006 NCCAM revised their definition of meditation, emphasizing the experience of the “suspension of thought activity". This definition led to the possibility of comparing mental silence oriented meditation with resting alone and studies have found significant physiological differences between the two.[43] It has been found that all approaches to meditation can achieve some non-specific benefits however the mental silence approach may be associated with additional specific benefits which are clinically beneficial.[44]

See also


  1. There has been a dramatic increase in the past 10 or 15 years or so of studies on the impact of meditation upon one's health. Translator for The Dalai Lama, interviewed in a video here
  2. 2.0 2.1 "...the power of our non-invasive technologies have made it possible to investigate the nature of cognition and emotion in the brain as never before..." Mind and Life Institute summary of Investigating the Mind 2005 meetings between The Dalai Lama and scientists
  3. Venkatesh S, Raju TR, Shivani Y, Tompkins G, Meti BL. (1997) A study of structure of phenomenology of consciousness in meditative and non-meditative states. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 1997 Apr;41(2): 149–53. PubMed Abstract PMID 9142560
  4. Peng CK, Mietus JE, Liu Y, Khalsa G, Douglas PS, Benson H, Goldberger AL. (1999) Exaggerated heart rate oscillations during two meditation techniques. Int J Cardiol. 1999 Jul 31;70(2):101–7. PubMed Abstract PMID 10454297
  5. Lazar, S.W.; Bush, G.; Gollub, R. L.; Fricchione, G. L.; Khalsa, G.; Benson, H. Functional brain mapping of the relaxation response and meditation" NeuroReport: Volume 11(7) 15 May 2000 pp. 1581–1585 PubMed abstract PMID 10841380
  6. Carlson LE, Ursuliak Z, Goodey E, Angen M, Speca M. (2001) The effects of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction program on mood and symptoms of stress in cancer outpatients: 6-month follow-up. Support Care Cancer. 2001 Mar;9(2):112-23.PubMed abstract PMID 11305069
  7. website for the Mind and Life Institute which governs the meetings between H.H. The Dalai Lama and leading Western scientists including one such meeting on the topic of neuroplasticity
  8. Davidson, Richard J.; Kabat-Zinn J, Schumacher J, Rosenkranz M, Muller D, Santorelli SF, Urbanowski F, Harrington A, Bonus K, Sheridan JF. (2003 Jul-Aug). "Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation". Psychosomatic Medicine 65 (4): 564–570. doi:10.1097/01.PSY.0000077505.67574.E3. PMID 12883106. 
  9. Physiological Effects of Transcendental Meditation by Wallace @ published in 1970!
  10. Kabat-Zinn, Jon; Lipworth L, Burney R. (1985). "The clinical use of mindfulness meditation for the self-regulation of chronic pain". Journal of Behavioral Medicine 8 (2): 163–190. doi:10.1007/BF00845519. PMID 3897551. 
  11. Buddha’s Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation by Richard Davidson and Antoine Lutz
  12. "Train Your Mind Change Your Brain" by Sharon Begley pages 229-242, in the chapter "Transforming the Emotional Mind"
  13. 13.0 13.1 Ospina MB, Bond K, Karkhaneh M, et al. (December 2008). "Clinical trials of meditation practices in health care: characteristics and quality". J Altern Complement Med 14 (10): 1199–213. doi:10.1089/acm.2008.0307. PMID 19123875. 
  14. "Empirical research on meditation started in the 1950s, and as much as 1,0 0 0 publications on meditationalready exist.Despite such a high numberof scientific reports and inspiring theoreticalproposals (Austin, 19 9 8; Shapiro & Walsh,1984; Varela, Thompson, & Rosch, 19 9 1;Wallace, 2 0 0 3 ; West, 1987), one still needsto admit that little is known about the neurophysiological processes involved in meditation and about its possible long-termimpact on the brain. The lack of statistical evidence, control populations and rigorof many of the early studies; the heterogeneity of the studied meditative states;and the difficulty incontrolling the degreeof expertise of practitioners can in partaccount for the limited contributions madeby neuroscience-oriented research on meditation." - "Meditation and the Neuroscience of Consciousness: An Introduction" by Lutz, Dunne and Davidson
  15. The following was taken from MBSR... "Jon Kabat-Zinn has said that his program has nothing at all to do with Buddhism, it is not spiritually based, and is therefore open to everyone no matter what life circumstances they are in.[reference-> In this video Jon Kabat-Zinn can be seen giving a speech at Google Headquarters about mindfulness, including the benefits shown by scientific study, the practice and principles of mindfulness, and how it relates to modern life in general Mindfulness-based stress] MBSR is practiced by those old and young, sick and healthy, professionals and monks alike. Jon Kabat-Zinn has also said that the principles of mindfulness, on which MBSR is based, have been most clearly articulated by those in Buddhist traditions.[reference-> In this video Jon Kabat-Zinn can be seen giving a speech at Google Headquarters about mindfulness, including the benefits shown by scientific study, the practice and principles of mindfulness, and how it relates to modern life in general Mindfulness-based stress][reference->Jon also has said this in his 2 CD talk called "Mindfulness for Beginners"]
  16. Template:Cite pmid
  17. .ref name="flow">Commentary: In the Zone: A Biobehavioral Theory of the Flow Experience
  18. .ref name="flow">Functional brain mapping of the relaxation response and meditation
  19. Bennett-Goleman, Tara, 2001. Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind can Heal the Heart, Harmony, 1st Edition: Jan 9, 2001, ISBN 978-0609607527
  20. The Emotionally Intelligent Workplace, Chapter Three
  21. Sagan, Carl. The Dragons of Eden; Random House, New York. 1977
  22. Social Anxiety and Social Phobia:Symptoms, Treatment and Support
  23. Benson, H., "The relaxation response: therapeutic effect," Science. 1997 Dec 5;278(5344):1694-5. PMID 9411784
  24. Harvard University Gazette: Meditation found to increase brain size
  25. Meditation Associated With Increased Grey Matter In The Brain
  26. Meditation Research from the lab of Sara Lazar
  27. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness by Sara W. Lazar et al. 2005,10&as_vis=1
  28. "Meditation boosts part of brain where ADD, addictions reside". Ars Technica. Retrieved 2010-08-22. 
  29. "Integrative body-mind training (IBMT) meditation found to boost brain connectivity". ScienceDaily. Retrieved 2010-08-22. 
  30. 30.0 30.1 M. Beauregard & V. Paquette (2006). "Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns". Neuroscience Letters (Elsevier) 405 (3): 186–90. doi:10.1016/j.neulet.2006.06.060. ISSN 0304-3940. PMID 16872743. 
  31. 31.0 31.1 31.2 Lutz, Antoine. "Breakthrough study on EEG of meditation". Retrieved 2006-08-14. 
  32. Bhattathiry, M.P.. "Neurophysiology of Meditation". Retrieved 2006-08-14. 
  33. Chang, Kanf-Ming (2005-07-15). "Meditation EEG Interpretation based on novel fuzzy-merging strategies and wavelet features". Retrieved 2006-08-14. 
  34. O'Nuallain, Sean. "Zero Power and Selflessness: What Meditation and Conscious Perception Have in Common". Retrieved 2009-05-30. 
  35. Brown, Daniel, et al. "Differences in Visual Sensitivity Among Mindfulness Meditators and Non-Meditators". Perceptual and Motor Skills 1984: 727-733.
  36. Tloczynski, Joseph, et al., "Perception of Visual Illusions by Novice and Longer-Term Meditators". Perceptual and Motor Skills 2000: 1021-1027.
  37. 37.0 37.1 37.2 Meditation: An Introduction on the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine's webpage, NCAAM is a subdivision of NIH.
  38. From a clinical study of twenty-seven long term meditators, Shapiro found that subjects reported significantly more positive effects than negative from meditation. However, of the twenty-seven subjects, seventeen (62.9%) reported at least one adverse effect, and two (7.4%) suffered profound adverse effects. Among these we find: relaxation-induced anxiety and panic; paradoxical increases in tension; less motivation in life; boredom; pain; impaired reality testing; confusion and disorientation; feeling 'spaced out'; depression; increased negativity; being more judgmental; and, ironically, feeling addicted to meditation Shapiro 1992, cited in Perez-De-Albeniz, Alberto and Holmes, Jeremy. Meditation: concepts, effects and uses in therapy. International Journal of Psychotherapy, Mar 2000, Vol. 5 Issue 1, p49, 10p
  39. Turner, Robert P.; Lukoff, David; Barnhouse, Ruth Tiffany & Lu, Francis G. Religious or Spiritual Problem. A Culturally Sensitive Diagnostic Category in the DSM-IV. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 1995; Vol.183, No. 7 435-444. Page 440.
  40. Hayes, 1999, chap. 3; Metzner, 2005
  41. Ospina p.130
  42. Ospina MB, Bond TK, Karkhaneh M, Tjosvold L, Vandermeer B, Liang Y, Bialy L, Hooton N, Buscemi N, Dryden DM, Klassen TP. "Meditation Practices for Health: State of the Research". Evidence Report/Technology Assessment No. 155. (Prepared by the University of Alberta Evidence-based Practice Center under Contract No. 290-02-0023.) AHRQ Publication No. 07-E010. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. June 2007.
  43. Manocha R, Black D, Ryan J, Stough C, Spiro D, [1] "This study demonstrates a skin temperature reduction on the palms of the hands during the experience of mental silence, arising as a result of a single 10 minute session of Sahaja yoga meditation." [Changing Definitions of Meditation: Physiological Corollorary, Journal of the International Society of Life Sciences, Vol 28 (1), Mar 2010]
  44. Manocha, Ramesh (2011-01-05). "Meditation, mindfulness and mind-emptiness" (etext). Acta Neuropsychiatrica. doi:10.1111/j.1601-5215.2010.00519.x. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 

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