If you’ve been following along the past several weeks, you may find yourself frustrated. Perhaps even thinking, if this is so hard, why am I doing it? Let’s take a break from the actual practice of meditation and review some of the research regarding some of the benefits it may have for you.

The majority of studies involving the neurologic effects of meditation have been conducted using mindfulness-based programs (Samatha). That’s because it’s a lot easier and quicker to teach. As you will recall, Vipassana is a life-long journey while Samatha can have immediate effects. That’s not to say that Vipassana does not have an impact on brain structure. It’s just harder to find a large enough subject group of seasoned Vipassana meditators to study, or to wait long enough for subjects to become proficient in Vipassana meditation. I’m going to highlight two researchers in the area as a push for you to do your own research. I promise, it’s fascinating.

Sara Lazar, Ph.D. at Harvard University (https://scholar.harvard.edu/sara_lazar/) initially conducted a study looking at the differences between the brains of individuals who had been meditating for a long time and individuals who had not meditated at all. Results revealed that the seasoned meditators had more gray matter in the insula and sensory regions of the brain, as well as in the auditory and sensory cortices. They also had more gray matter in the frontal cortex and, the 50-years-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex as did 25-years-olds. This was striking in that the prefrontal cortex is known to shrink with age. While the results were significant, there was no evidence that the seasoned meditators did not have increased volumes in those brain areas prior to practicing meditation.

Dr. Lazar then conducted a second study, in which none of the subjects had ever meditated before. Brain volumes were measured at the beginning of the study and again at the end. Subjects were divided into one of two groups. One group was enrolled in an eight week mindfulness-based stress reduction program and the other was not. Those in the stress reduction program also practiced meditation at home for an average of 27 minutes a day during the eight week study. After those eight weeks, differences in brain volume were revealed in five different regions of the brain in the group that was enrolled in the mindfulness-based stress reduction program.

Brain Area

Type of Change

Function

Posterior cingulate

Increase

Focus, self-reference

Left hippocampus

Increase

Cognition, memory, emotional regulation

Temporo-parietal junction

Increase

Perspective taking, empathy compassion

Pons

Increase

Neuroregulation

Amygdala

Decrease

Fight/flight, anxiety, fear, stress

Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D. and his group at the University of San Diego (https://www.zeidanlab.com/) have found similar neurological changes as a result of mindfulness-based meditation. They also took it a step further and discovered a 22% reduction in anxiety after only 20 minutes of mindfulness-based meditation by first time meditators!

Dr. Jud Brewer (https://drjud.com/about/) has studied both Samatha and Vipassana meditators. Again, his results support those of Drs. Lazar and Zeidan.

Dr. Ronald D. Siegel, in conjunction with The Great Courses, has created a lecture series entitled The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based Path to Well-being. It’s a great place to start your scientific review of mindfulness.

Whether you look at it from a spiritual, psychological, or neurological angle, meditation works, and I encourage you to try it.

 

This blog is not designed to diagnose, treat, or prevent illnesses or trauma, and Dr. Emick is not responsible for your use of this educational material or its consequences. Furthermore, reading this blog does not create a doctor-patient relationship. The information contained within this blog is not intended to dictate what constitutes reasonable, appropriate, or best care for any given physical or behavioral health issue, nor does it take into account the unique circumstances that define the health issues of the reader. If you have questions about the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of a condition or illness, you should consult your personal health care professional. As always, consult with your personal health care professional before beginning or changing any fitness or nutrition program to make sure that it is appropriate for your needs. Dr. Emick reserves the right to modify her positions on a subject based upon new research or data as it presents.