The Evidence For Meditation

The Evidence for Meditation


Origins Of Meditation
Forms of Meditation
Overview of Research in to Meditation
General Evidence Base For Complementary Care
Psychological Research In To Meditation
Physical Research Using Meditation
Summary Of Research
An Interesting Note


I was out for a walk one day on a hill near where I live in the south of England, from the top there’s a great view out to sea and across the southern chalk downs. There are also three mounds on the top that the map shows as ancient burial mounds.

I was sitting quietly on the top of one of the mounds, eating a sandwich, when a group of people arrived. they appeared to be led by a bearded man who had long hair and was at the same time slightly bald, he said to another member of his party, “John, I think we’ll get sat in a circle here and set up an OM and we’ll take it from there”. So they all sat cross legged on the ground on the burial mound, closed their eyes and started to chant gently at first with the volume rising gradually. “OMmmmmmm, OMmmmmmmm”.

They did it as a group. The earth did not shake, the clouds did not gather ominously and lightening did not strike, neither was I drawn mysteriously to join their group. But they seemed to be content with their meditation.

Since then I have seen many ways to meditate and although some would claim a particular method is the best method, I can see that there are different sorts of meditation and there are potentially flavours that would suit many different sorts of people.

If there’s one thing that I’ve learnt it’s that being content is a good place to be.

In this article:

  • I’d like to start with a basic definition that appears to cover all sorts of meditation.
  • I would like to briefly characterise the different meditations, to identify the ways in which the active part of the meditation methods differs.
  • I think it’s important to understand something about the origins of meditation because there are many traditions.
  • I want to look at some of the research that provides the evidence about meditation.
  • I’d like to get a view of what it really does for us.



a practice where an individual focuses their mind on a particular object, thought or activity to achieve mental clarity and an emotionally calm state.


The origins of the word meditation appears to come from the Latin verb meditari meaning to think.

This is logical since the English language and so many others are influenced to a great extent by the effect of the Roman Empire.

Origins Of Meditation

Most of the meditation traditions that we recognise started out as part of religious rituals.

The earliest written references to meditation come from Indian religious texts from the Hindu Vedas. Other Indian religions like Jainism also include meditation as part of their religious rites and practices.

In China, Confucianism and Taoism both reference meditation as a religious practice.

The Islamic tradition of Dhkir also includes a form of meditation in the repetition of phrases in the mind.

The spread of Buddhism is probably the most common reference point to meditation in various parts of the world.

Some of the rhythmic chanting of some branches of Christianity like Gregorian chanting could be construed as a form of meditation.

Although there are examples of scholarly interest and practice of meditation through exposure to Indian, Buddhist and other traditions, it started to become more widely known and popular in western countries from around the early 1960s.

The more recent meditation in the west has been notable as being secular rather than religious. Some versions of meditation still include parts of their religious past, but on the whole the popularity of meditation in the west has been a personal, non-religious practice, to enhance the sense of self in a world that is perceived to change too quickly.

Forms of Meditation

There are many forms and traditions of meditation.

Possibly the most common form is a personal meditation, an activity where time is set aside to sit alone in silence with (or without) your own thoughts.

A similar form of personal or private meditation might include chanting a mantra quietly to yourself. A mantra is a phrase that you can use to focus your mind as you apply your voice to it. The repetition of the mantra appears to be a means of involving the mind in doing something tangible in order to enter the meditative state.

Taking physical poses is a physical expression of meditation that allows the mind to enter a meditative state. It appears in Indian traditions of Yoga, it also appears in Chinese traditions of Chi Kung and Tai Chi. All of these claim health benefits from the physical activity.

There are aspects of martial arts practice that involve the use of perfecting physical movements or sequences such as Karate Katas. The mental effect of focusing on the physical movement has been described as a form of meditation. The perfect martial arts practitioner is said to act with absence of malice and a single mind.

Overview of Research in to Meditation

Research has evolved as medical technology has evolved, in the early days it was possible to get subjective feedback from research, now it is possible to use a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) to actually view active parts of the brain.

Research is presented in several main forms when it comes to meditation:

  • The use of meditation to produce a measurable effect in the body or in the mind, backed up by observation of subjects and assessment of their psychological reaction to the meditation.
  • Research has evolved as medical technology has evolved. Early research involved electroencephalogram (EEG) brainwave scans. More recently the use of technology such as Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI), has been used to make physical observations of areas of the brain in response to meditative practices. Along with physical observation, advances have also made assessment of changes in brain chemistry to be measured.
  • Often researchers run an initial study, these tend to be less rigorous as they are intended to be a study to indicate if it is worthwhile doing a full study.

Searching through research is rewarding but it’s something that can cause frustration too. As lay readers we initially have no concept of just how many variables are involved in any trial or test of hypotheses involving human psychology.

Studies tend to be incredibly specific, for example some concentrate on previous sufferers of depression and their reaction to meditation within a tight band of the study. But we are then left asking what about non depressive people, and perhaps making incorrect inferences.

We are often on the receiving end of second hand reviewing of research so we must be careful to look for personal preferences of the reviewer.

General Evidence Base For Complementary Care

Researchers from John Hopkins University (Goyall et al, 2014) performed a meta-study of the evidence base for therapies that lie outside the spectrum of traditional science based clinical medicine and surgery.

They included an examination of Mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) and Transcendental (mantra based) meditation. Their aim being to analyse well designed studies to get a meaningful measure of the efficacy of these techniques. These studies compared their outcomes with educational intervention as well as exercise and progressive muscle relaxation.

Of all the published trials they found that only 3% met their criteria for inclusion in the study which meant that only 47 trials were included.

That is an indication that in many cases, researchers have been so intent on showing an improvement using meditation techniques that they didn’t include some form of comparison with a recognised technique such as walking, to alleviate stress or anxiety. That didn’t necessarily mean that their hypotheses were wrong, but the lack of control group comparison did reduce the meaningfulness of the results of the study.

Their conclusion is interesting to say the least. Mindfulness and transcendental meditation based techniques showed moderate evidence of improvement in anxiety, depression and pain. They found low levels of evidence to support improvements in stress, distress, and quality of life.

When compared to other therapies, they found little benefit when compared with exercise, progressive muscle relaxation and Cognitive Behavioural Techniques (CBT).

That sounds like a slap in the face for use of meditation, but perhaps it’s more of a wakeup call for designers of trials. Without the control groups and recognisable reference points the results are not backed by evidence. Statistics may be used to show the results, but if there is no way to allow for effects like the personality of instructors, then it become difficult to see absolute effects. These are factors well known to modern researchers.

Researchers who design trials are expected to make use of double blind techniques to ensure that the efficacious results that they achieve are due to the use of methods that they are employing. They are expected to compare the results with a known or recognised technique or procedure and make sure that the results they acquire would happen in the normal course of the lives of the participants.

This means that there will be a recognisable meditation procedure that is followed for that part of the trial. There will also be what is known as a ‘sham’ procedure that will be followed by the part of the trial not receiving the real process. The sham process includes many aspects that are not actually part of meditation but have often been perceived as part of meditation, so it would be difficult for participants to know which procedure they are following.

The sorts of effects that have to be accounted for are the levels of charisma of instructors, what the participants already know and how their expectations are managed. The abilities of the participants to follow instructions as well as their actual adherence to the procedures they are meant to be following are also important factors. Essentially any placebo factor that may influence the perceived efficacy must be managed.

For example, in one trial that compared mindfulness meditation to a sham procedure, the scripts were reviewed and the presentation was adhered to when being presented to their respective groups.

Psychological Research In To Meditation

This section is a sample of the research which is extensive.

Pain Control

In a study of the use of mindfulness meditation in the self-regulation of pain (Kabat-Zinn, 1982), fifty one patients suffering from chronic pain including lower back, neck, shoulder, headache, facial pain and angina took part in a trial.

They were taught a Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program based on mindfulness meditation that they put in to practice for 10 weeks. It is usual for pain to induce a reaction of alarm, and the emotional nature of alarm is part of the pain experience. The meditation was designed to teach to patients how to become aware of their pain from the position of a detached observer.

The study concluded that the mindfulness approach allowed the patients to separate the sense of pain being experienced from their normal reaction of alarm. Their detached observational stance allowed them to recognise and change their reaction to their pain and reduce their suffering.

After ten weeks, pain was rated along with mood disturbance and other medical and psychiatric symptoms. 65% of the patients showed a reduction in pain of more than 33%. 50% of them showed a reduction in pain of more than 50%. They also noticed reduced mood disturbances.

They concluded that mindfulness meditation was effective for self regulation of chronic pain.

In a follow up study four years later Kabat-Zinn et all (1986) the researchers checked the original group and others who used the technique starting at later dates, 225 patients in all.

They concluded that with a quality training program that the long term benefits of pain control can be maintained with all the associated improvements of quality of life experience.

The implementation of this trial was notably not double blind so there is no assessment of placebo in the results. So it is an example of a trial where it is left to the reader to say what importance placebo may have taken in this trial.


Poor sleep is one of the most common issues in modern western society. Sleep disturbances are generally most common among older adults, and they treat it as “one of those things you have to deal with” and the issue is usually left untreated.

Treatments for sleep disturbances are a bit few and far between.

A trial (Black et al, 2015) was done to determine the efficacy of mindful-meditation to promote sleep quality in older adults with moderate sleep issues.

This randomised 12 month trial involved two groups of older adults averaging 66.3 years old with moderate sleep disturbances.

The trial compared a standardised mindful awareness practice (MAP) to a sleep hygiene education (SHE) intervention applied as two hours per week, with assigned homework, over a period of six weeks.

The study was designed to detect changes in sleep disturbance, and secondary outcomes like daytime impairment of cognitive functions along with insomnia symptoms like depression, fatigue and anxiety. It also measured inflammatory factors using physical analysis.

The mindfulness group showed significant improvements in sleep disturbance, the mindfulness group also fared better than the group taking part in the sleep hygiene course. The results also showed the mindfulness group improving in absolute terms and in relation to the sleep hygiene education group for depression and fatigue. Both groups showed the same improvements in sleep related anxiety and stress and both groups showed a continuing decline in inflammatory factors.

They concluded that the mindfulness approach was significantly better than the sleep hygiene approach.

An interesting factor that appeared not to get a significant mention is that although the mindfulness group fared better, both groups overall experienced a measurable improvement in sleep. This might not seem important but it is always worth bearing in mind that it’s better to do something than to do nothing.

Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility is an interesting term. It is defined as the ability to switch between two or more different concepts and the ability to think about two or more different concepts at the same time. The quicker you can reliably switch between concepts, the more cognitive flexibility you are exhibiting.

Moore et al, (2009) investigated the link between meditation, self-reported mindfulness and cognitive flexibility.

Cognitive flexibility was measured using the Stroop test and the “d2-concentration and endurance test”.

  • The Stroop test is a series of cards of different colours with the name of a colour printed on each card, the printed colour may not be the same as the colour of the card. Participants are shown the cards and have to read the colour word. Cognitive interference naturally occurs and it is normal for the first thing in the mind to be the colour of the card, so it is a simple but effective test.
  • The “d2-concentration and endurance test” is a test to cross out a specific letter from a long sequence of random letters.

Participants who meditated demonstrated more mental flexibility. The relevance of these findings for mental balance and well-being are discussed in the study.

In a student study available on the internet: Mindfulness: How to measure being attentive, by Marieke Sier you can see how carefully such a trial has to be designed, even for a student project. In fact the results of this test differ from the ones in (Moore et al 2009) and the difference is discussed in the paper. The meditators in the Moore study for example were intermediate level meditators, having completed a minimum of a 6 week course. The meditators in the Sier study had over a year experience.

The studies agree that the meditators have increased attention.

Perhaps we could ask: Were the meditators cognitively flexible before they learnt to meditate?

And perhaps: Did they select mindfulness meditation as a way to control their thoughts better?

And of course: If a person starts to meditate do their cognitive flexibility and attention levels increase?

This was addressed by Zeidan et al (2010) who accepted that long term meditators showed improvement in many psychological measures, they wanted to determine if exposure to short term mental training would have any significant effect.

They compared the effect of a short course in meditation against reading a book, on a number of psychological markers.

Both meditation and reading a book were found to be of value in lifting mood but the meditators showed reductions in fatigue, anxiety and increased mindfulness.

Their findings also showed that a four day course of meditation training can enhance the ability to sustain attention; a benefit that had previously only been reported with long-term meditators.


Rumination, often referred to as over thinking, has been demonstrated to be linked with depression (Papageorgiou, C., & Wells, A. 2003).

In “The Effects of Mindfulness Meditation on Cognitive Processes and Affect in Patients with Past Depression” (Ramel et al 2009) the researchers studied the effect of learning mindfulness meditation on a group of patients with a history of depression.

The main improvement shown was a reduction in rumination after only 8 weeks of meditation. This also took in to account beliefs and various contributory symptoms associated with depression.


As we get older, our mental faculties fade (at differing rates for different individuals of course), and at the end of the day, the mind leads the body in many faculties.

A study of 73 residents in 8 homes for the elderly with a mean age of 81 years (Alexander, 1989) was designed to investigate if the change in state of consciousness using specific mental techniques could extend life and reverse some of the age related issues.

The participants were assigned randomly to either:

  • No treatment
  • Transcendental Meditation (TM) (mantra based meditation)
  • Mindfulness training (MF) in active distinction making
  • Low mindfulness relaxation.

The study results compared several factors including:

  • paired associate learning,
  • cognitive flexibility,
  • word fluency,
  • systolic blood pressure,
  • behavioural flexibility
  • aging.

The TM group was found to have improved most, MF came next when compared to the relaxation and no treatment groups.

A measure of perceived control indicated that MF was most effective followed by TM.

A follow up at 3 years reported a survival rate of 100% for TM and 87.5% for MF, the other groups were lower survival rates.

Improvement of Judgement

Kahneman and Tversky (1974) performed studies that included the effect of bias within the human judgement process.

Hafenbrack et al (2014) performed a series of studies in to the use of mindfulness in de-biasing the mind and improving an aspect of judgement known as the sunk-cost bias.

A sunk cost is a cost (financial, time or effort) that has been incurred, which cannot be recovered.

The sunk cost bias is demonstrated when it is decided to continue a behaviour or project based on the level of previous effort that has been invested. This bias in judgement explains why people finish watching movies they aren’t enjoying, and hold on to investments that are underperforming.

A distillation of the outcome is that the mindfulness approach to being “in the now” meant that effects of past and future are reduced and reduced the effect of the sunk-cost bias in judgements.

This is an example of a study that can be taken at different levels, yes mindfulness improves judgement, but with a deeper understanding about what was being studied, the results only demonstrated one aspect of judgement. I hasten to add that this is not an attempt to hoodwink anybody, researchers attempt to be very specific, the user of the results must be careful in their use or extrapolation of the results.

Stress Symptom Reduction

Specca et all (2000) investigated the effects of mindfulness meditation on the symptoms of stress in cancer patients.

As in many studies, they implemented a control group by causing a wait list. So at random some people were admitted to the active study while others were left on the waiting list. It is referred to as a randomised, wait-list controlled design.

The group were suffering from the same type of cancer at the same stage of development.

The meditation group showed a reduction in total mood disturbance, anxiety, anger, and confusion and more vigour than control subjects. They also showed better body functioning.

In summary they showed a 31% reduction in symptoms of stress.

An interesting aspect of this trial is that stress reduction improved heart response and gastrointestinal functioning.

In a 6 month follow up of the study (2001) the improvements were maintained and it was concluded that this program was an effective way to decrease mood disturbance and stress symptoms in both male and female patients with a wide variety of cancer diagnoses, stages of illness, and educational background, and with disparate ages.

Psoriasis Improvement

Kabat-Zinn et al (1998) investigated the Influence of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction intervention on rates of skin clearing in patients with moderate to severe psoriasis.

The study delivered mindfulness by audio tape during treatment with ultraviolet light.

The mindfulness group showed a measurable improvement in their psoriasis over the control group.

The test gave no treatment to the control group so perhaps the effects of placebo are present in the results. Some similar therapies compare to a sham mindfulness to detect the placebo effect.

Tai Chi and stress

In an interesting study (Jin, P, 1992) the effects of Tai Chi were compared with brisk walking, meditation, and reading in reducing mental and emotional stress.

Mental stress was created by mental arithmetic and similar tasks, the emotional disturbance was induced by watching a film.

Male and female tai chi practitioners were randomly assigned to the four tasks.

Stress was measured using saliva cortisol, heart rate, blood pressure and levels of catecholamine in urine.

The cortisol results showed all four post stress activities to be significant.

Tai Chi produced similar urine and cardio graphic results to brisk walking, but it was superior to neutral reading.

There was a suspicion that improvements in state anxiety and vigour for Tai Chi may have been due to expectation and they made recommendations that control of expectation should be used in future studies.

Heart Disease

Tacon et al (2003) were driven by the misconception amongst Americans that heart disease is not a serious problem for women. There is a body of evidence that indicates that anxiety is a contributory factor in the development of heart disease.

They wanted to assess the effectiveness of Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction program to reduce the anxiety in women with heart disease.

They found that anxiety, emotional control, coping styles, were all improved by comparing the treatment group with a control group.

ADHD in adults and children

Zylowska et al (2008) performed a pilot study in to the use of mindfulness meditation training in adults and adolescents with ADHD.

They enrolled adults and adolescents with ADHD in an 8-week mindfulness training program and compared measurements of self-reported ADHD symptoms before and after the program.

Not all participants completed the 8 week training, but most of those who completed the training showed an improvement. They concluded that a controlled clinical study was warranted.

Substance Abuse in an Incarcerated Population

There is a Buddhist meditation technique called Vipassana. Vipassana is generally presented as a ten day period of meditation. It is generally split in to steps:

  • The first step is to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual activity, speaking falsely, and intoxicants. All of these are seen as things that agitate the mind.
  • The initial meditation involves achieving some control of one’s own mind by concentrating on the flow of breath into and out of the nostrils.
  • After the fourth day the participants have a calmer mind and are taught to observe sensations throughout the body. They are taught to identify the source of sensations, and in that understanding they learn not to react to the initiators of the sensations. Initiators are thoughts, all our interaction with our environment is via thought. This allows participants to learn not to react to these stimulants.
  • On the last day participants are ready to learn the meditation of loving kindness or goodwill to all.

Vipassana meditation is expected to be practiced daily following the course, it involves the continued non reaction to stimuli along with the loving kindness.

Bowen et all (2006) studied the effect of Vipassana on individuals who do not wish to attend or have not succeeded with traditional addiction treatments.

Participants in the VM course were compared to those in a treatment-as-usual control group. The VM group showed significant reductions in alcohol, marijuana, and crack cocaine use and reduction in associated psychiatric symptoms.

The participants also showed increases in positive psychosocial outcomes.

Loving Kindness

Frederickson et al (2008) studied the effect of meditation based on loving kindness might affect people in a way that builds over time. Essentially they showed that meditating in this way improved the positive emotions that they experienced in their lives.

They also noted that the measures of positive experience showed that it was better than what they referred to as the hedonic treadmill. The hedonic treadmill is a tendency to return quickly to a relatively stable level of happiness despite positive or negative emotional events in life.

Weight Control

Kristeller et al (1999) performed an exploratory study of a meditation-based intervention for binge eating disorder (BED).

They evaluated 18 obese women using a series of eating specific mindfulness meditation exercises. Participants were evaluated regularly starting before the six week course and binge eating was found to drop in frequency markedly along with depression and anxiety, whereas a sense of self control increased.

Depression and anxiety are often accompanied by disturbance in eating habits, and weight control, sufferers are often drawn towards sugary foods.

Improved Mood In Alzheimers patients

A pilot study by Pomykala et al (2012) in to the mood of Alzheimer’s patients and caregivers taking part in an 8 week meditation program found improvements in several areas.

Results compared the state of the participants before and after the trial period.

Improvements were found in perceived stress, improving sleep, mood, and memory in both the adults with cognitive impairment and their caregivers.

Silent Mind Meditation for Perimenopause

A pilot study by Manocha et al (2007) was run to the use of a mental silence form of meditation for women in perimenopause.

The study concentrated on a group of fourteen women who were experiencing menopausal symptoms. In particular they were suffering from hot flashes, but were receiving no treatment. They attended a Sahaja yoga meditation class twice per week and practiced daily at home.

Sahaja Yoga meditation is a form of meditation that concentrates on achieving a state of mental silence.

The analysis of the study showed that the improvement in all symptoms was significant.

Silent Mind Meditation and Work Stress

The effect of meditation on work stress was studied by Manocha et al (2011). It was a well-designed trial with 3 groups assigned randomly:

  • meditators group
  • relaxers (active control) group
  • waiting list (inactive control) group

The meditators were given an 8 week course in silent-mind based meditation, the relaxation group were given a course in non-meditative relaxation, the waiting list had no treatment.

They concluded that mental silence or thought reduction meditation was a safe and effective strategy to deal with workplace stress and depressive feelings.

Physical Research Using Meditation

This section is a sample of the research which is extensive.

Executive Control and Emotional Acceptance

This is an example of a more technological approach to research in to the effects of mindfulness meditation.

Teper and Inzlicht (2012) used electroencephalography to measure brain response in order to investigate one theory of the benefits of mindfulness meditation. Mindful-meditation had been investigated and shown to benefit executive control, one theory was that the benefits appear to come from present moment awareness and emotional acceptance.

When we exhibit certain mental actions, specific events occur at a neuronal level in the brain and these can be observed and measured. In this case the event being detected was an error related negativity (ERN) that occurs within 100ms of the detection of a mental error. This ERN response was monitored while meditators and controls (non-meditators) performed the Stroop test (described previously).

When the results of Meditators were compared to those of Controls, meditators showed greater executive control by exhibiting fewer errors on the Stroop test, they also showed a higher level of ERN, and more emotional acceptance.

The derived explanation was that meditation practice offers greater executive control, heightened emotional acceptance and increased brain performance monitoring.

Essentially they demonstrated by measuring brain responses what had previously been demonstrated by other methods.

Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation

In a randomised, controlled study (Davidson et al 2003), the researchers investigated the effect of mindfulness meditation on brain and immune functioning.

The study measured the change in brain activity before and after an 8 week mindfulness meditation training program. The study compares the effect on the meditators with a group of non-meditators. At 8 weeks, the meditators and non-meditators were given a flu vaccine.

The results showed that the effect of mindfulness meditation led to an increase in brain activity in an area of the brain associated with positive affect. The reaction to the flu vaccine showed that the meditators produced more antibodies in the blood in response to the influenza vaccine than the non-meditators.

The findings showed that an 8 week mindfulness course had a demonstrable effect on brain activity and also on the immune system functionality.

How Does Mindfulness Work

Hozel et al (2011) recognised the beneficial effects of mindfulness and non-judgemental awareness in the moment. Mindfulness is increasingly (and successfully) used in psychotherapeutic interventions for many anxiety related issues.

They explored several facets of mindfulness and the corresponding changes in the brain as demonstrated in functional and neuro imaging. Specifically they were interested in

  • attention regulation
  • body awareness,
  • emotion regulation (including reappraisal and exposure, extinction, and reconsolidation)
  • change in perspective on the self.

This is referred to as empirical research, results that come from physical measurements and observation rather than theory.

They found that available evidence demonstrated that mindfulness practice is linked to neuroplastic changes in the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, temporo-parietal junction, fronto-limbic network, and default mode network structures. These are all parts of the brain with previously known functionality and the study suggested that these changes to brain composition enhance self-regulation.

Brain Imaging of Experienced meditators

Hozel et al (2007) performed an Investigation of mindfulness meditation practitioners using brain imaging. They studied experienced Vipassana mindfulness meditators. The brain composition of the meditators was compared to control subjects who were non meditators but were matched to the meditators in terms of sex, age, education and handedness.

The results suggest that meditation practice is associated with structural differences in regions that are activated during meditation and in regions that are relevant for the task of meditation.

Essentially the meditation was exercise for the brain.

Improved brain matter

In another brain imaging study, Lazar et al (2005) studied how meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness.

They started with the reference to previous research that noted long term meditation was associated with altered resting electroencephalogram patterns, suggestive of long lasting changes in brain activity.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) showed that the participants (20) who were experienced Insight meditators showed that that brain regions associated with attention, interoception (a sense of understanding what is going on in your body) and sensory processing were thicker in meditation participants than in control subjects who had similar lifestyle to participants. The prefrontal cortical thickness was most pronounced in older participants, suggesting that meditation might offset age-related cortical thinning.

EEG Studies of Meditation

Kasamatsu, A., & Hirai, T (1966) performed “An electroencephalographic study on the Zen meditation (Zazen)”.

Zazen is characterised by the aim of not thinking while sitting.

They found brain patterns on the EEG that were different to sleep and hypnagogic (the state of drowsiness before sleep) states of mind. The researchers concluded that these experienced meditators were entering an altered state of consciousness.

A similar study by Banquet (1973) made similar conclusions about the altered state of consciousness entered by experienced meditators using Transcendental Meditation (TM).

Transcendental meditation is characterised by concentration on a mantra, or repeated phrase during meditation.

Cerebral Blood Flow

Newberg et al (2001) did a preliminary study of the measurement of regional cerebral blood flow during the complex cognitive task of meditation. It measured changes in regionalised cerebral blood flow of eight Tibetan Buddhist subjects as they meditated.

Significant increases in blood flow was detected in brain areas that indicated increased cortical activity during meditation, the detection of increased blood flow in the superior parietal lobe may reflect an altered sense of space experienced during meditation.

Dopamine Level Control

Kajer et al (1992) used a method called 11C-raclopride PET to monitor the brains of experienced Yoga Nidri meditators. This method is commonly used to measure dopamine levels and also can be used to view aspects of the brain.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, and is also associated with excitement and feeling good. It is connected to expectation of upcoming events and also in addiction.

The levels and location in the brain of dopamine that were measured indicated that the meditators demonstrated the ability, in the meditative state, to supress the readiness for action and increase sensory levels.

This was a demonstration of conscious control of particular parts of the brain.

Brain Changes Allowing Positive Emotions

Luders et al (2009) used a high resolution MRI scanner and a technique called voxel-based morphometry to examine the brains of long term meditators.

They found increases in parts of the brain that have been linked to the ability to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful-behaviour.

These abilities were found that the brain changes were not specific to any particular style of meditation.

Meditation May Reduce Age Related Cognitive Decline

Pagnoni and Cekic (2007) studied the effects of brain aging on Zen meditators using Voxel-based morphometry for MRI. The brain images of 13 meditators were compared with 13 non meditators who were matched in age, experience, education etc, to assess any obvious differences of brain anatomy that may occur for the meditators.

They used images recorded while participants did a computerised sustained attention task.

Their results showed some differences of grey matter volume, the most prominent increase in brain volume was in the area associated in attentional processing.

The researchers suggest that the results indicate that regular meditation may have neuroprotective effects and that it appears to reduce cognitive decline associated with aging.

Meditation Is Beneficial For DNA Replication

When chromosomes replicate, the replication does not occur to the end of the DNA sequence, there is a region at the end of a DNA sequence called a telomere which is present to protect the chromosome from deterioration. The length of telomeres shortens with age and the aging process is essentially the effect of imperfect DNA replication as the telomeres become too short to be effective.

A meta-analytic review Schutte and Malouf (2014) was performed on the effects of mindfulness meditation on telomerase activity. The results showed that mindful-meditation led to increased telomerase activity in blood cells.

Telomerase is an enzyme that can increase the size of telomere regions in DNA. The increase of telomerase activity in blood cells indicates improvements to the DNA replication ability for the blood cells.

The researchers concluded that the results indicated the need for further large scale trials to investigate the use of mindful meditation to facilitate telomerase functioning.

Brain monitoring of Mental Silence Meditation

Sahaja Yoga meditation was the subject of a study by Hernández et al (2015). They wanted to monitor brain activity during silence based meditation in order to identify what neural areas would be activated.

They made use of nineteen experienced meditators and observed them while they meditated in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fmri) scanner.

They observed initial intense neural process that appears to be necessary to silence the mind, followed by relatively reduced brain activation which reduced further as the meditators deepened their meditative state.

Summary Of Research

This is an interesting and fascinating body of research.

At one time meditation was seen as a bunch of hippies sitting around doing, but the evidence from research indicates that meditation is so much more.

It would be easy to say that meditation has been around for thousands of years so it must work, but the medical establishment requires evidence. Many other people need to know that there is scientific evidence too, it’s a facet of the world that we live in.

The research presents evidence that meditation in its many forms can have a real and measureable effect on a range of physical and mental issues.

The evidence demonstrates that non meditators can learn to follow a particular type of meditation process in a short space of time. When practiced a couple of times per day, the benefits start to become apparent quickly and produce measurable effects within six to eight weeks.

Physical measurement studies have shown increases of brain mass related to practicing meditation, and that indicates the possibility of affecting the aging process of the brain. There is the possibility that it can provide some protection against neuro degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Even new meditators can improve cognitive functions and if early studies are confirmed then they can improve their ability to stave off dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and live a longer more fulfilling life.

Within 8 weeks, ordinary people can learn meditation techniques to lessen pain, reduce anxiety, reduce fear and improve symptoms of depression. And in to the bargain they may even live longer.

The mechanics of meditation have something in common with existing psychotherapeutic techniques like Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). It is possible that this is what makes an ancient tradition acceptable in a modern therapeutic system.

An Interesting Note

Ancient texts and eastern traditions refer to a mind with thoughts that upset or disquiet a person as a ‘monkey mind’. It’s a term that is still used. Those same ancient texts refer to meditation as being a quiet mind, or a mind without thought. These texts describe the process of mindfulness as the first step along the path to achieving a quiet mind.

The study in to silent mind and workplace stress by Manocha et al (2011) indicated that a mind that learns to let go of thought has a therapeutic effect. This is slightly different to the mindful-approach and Vipassana.

This is significant because it was not about dealing with thoughts. It was about learning to shut unwanted thoughts off.

This might not be as surprising as you might think when you take in to account other research by Papageorgiou et al (2003), and Nolen-Hoeksema (2000) that points towards the connection and role of rumination in depressive illness. The logic here is that learning to silence the thoughts, by definition reduces rumination and hence should reduce depressive symptoms.


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