Extracts from the article ‘Putting meditation to the test’ by Michael Bond. Published in New Scientist Magazine on 11th January 2011
Once it was only Eastern Mystics who claimed the benefits of meditation in transforming the mind and soothing the soul, now this practice has also become much more mainstream in Western culture. However there are still many people, particularly those who see them self as down to earth, logical, and rational types, who see meditation as little more than an exotic form of daydreaming, or at a push a quick fix for a stressed-out mind.
So if you are skeptical of the benefits of meditation, or if you think it is more effort than it is worth, let’s take a look at what science has to say:
Stories abound in the media about the transformative potential of meditative practice, but it is only in recent years that empirical evidence has emerged. In the past decade, researchers have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at the brains of experienced meditators as well as beginners, and tested the effects of different meditative practices on cognition, behavior, physical and emotional health and brain plasticity. A real scientific picture of meditation is now coming together. It suggests that meditation can indeed change aspects of your psychology, temperament and physical health in dramatic ways. The studies are even starting to throw light on how meditation works.
"Time spent earnestly investigating the nature of your mind is bound to be helpful," says Clifford Saron at the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis. And you don't need a Buddhist or spiritualist world view to profit from meditation. "One can be an empiricist [in meditation], just by working with the nature of your experience." Saron should know - he is leading the Shamatha project, one of the most comprehensive scientific studies of meditation ever.
In 2007, Saron and a team of neuroscientists and psychologists followed 60 experienced meditators over an intensive three-month meditation retreat in the Colorado Rockies, watching for changes in their mental abilities, psychological health and physiology.
The study measured the volunteers' attention skills by showing them a succession of vertical lines flashed up on a computer screen. They then had to indicate, by clicking a mouse, whenever there was a line shorter than the rest. As the retreat progressed, the volunteers became progressively more accurate and found it increasingly easy to stay focused on the task for long periods.
Other researchers have also linked meditation with improved attention. In 2007, Heleen Slagter, now at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, published results from a study involving a combination of focused attention and mindfulness meditation - which involves the constant monitoring of moment-by-moment experience. After three months of meditation subjects showed a decreased "attentional blink", the cognitive processing delay, that causes people to miss a stimulus when it follows rapidly after another.
The suggestion that meditation can improve attention is worth considering, given that focus is crucial to so much in life, from the learning and application of skills to everyday judgment and decision-making. But how does dwelling on your breath for a period each day lead to such a pronounced cognitive change?
One possibility is that it involves working memory, the capacity to hold in mind information needed for short-term reasoning and comprehension. A meditation is partly about observing how our sensory experiences change from moment to moment, which requires us to hold information about decaying sensory traces in working memory.
Many researchers also believe that meditation training enhances some central cognitive faculty that is used in all basic perception tasks. "It's like a muscle that can be used in lots of different ways". Then, once perception becomes less effortful, the brain can direct more of its limited resources to concentration.
Along with enhancing cognitive performance, meditation seems to have an effect on emotional well-being. A second study from researchers with the Shamatha project, concluded that meditation improves general social and emotional functioning, making study participants less anxious, and more aware of and better able to manage their emotions.
A clue about how this might work comes from the finding that the volunteers also got better at a task in which they had to look at a screen and click a mouse whenever a long line appeared but resist the urge to click at the appearance of shorter lines. This is harder than it sounds, especially as the shorter lines appear infrequently. Lead author Baljinder Sahdra, at the University of California, Davis, reasons that meditation training teaches people to "withhold impulsive reactions to a lot of internal stimuli, some of which can be emotionally intense in nature", adding that this kind of restraint seems to be a key feature of healthy emotion regulation.
The notion that by practicing meditation people become less emotionally reactive is also reinforced by brain imaging work. A team led by Julie Brefczynski-Lewis used fMRI to study meditators "in action" and found that the amygdala - which plays a crucial role in processing emotions and emotional memories - was far less active in expert meditators than in novices
The ability to manage one's emotions could also be key to why meditation can improve physical health. Studies have shown it to be an effective treatment for eating disorders, substance abuse, psoriasis and in particular for recurrent depression and chronic pain. Last year, psychologist Fadel Zeidan, at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, reported that his volunteers noticed a decreased sensitivity to pain after just a few sessions of mindfulness meditation. He believes meditation doesn't remove the sensation of pain so much as teach sufferers to control their emotional reaction to it and reduce the stress response.
The positive effect of meditation on psychological well-being could also explain recent findings from the Shamatha project that regular meditation practice can lead to a significant increase in the activity of telomerase, an enzyme that protects against cellular ageing and which is suppressed in response to psychological stress.
Emotions may also be at the heart of another benefit of meditation. One of the hottest areas in meditation research is whether the practice can enhance feelings towards others. This arose partly because fMRI studies by Lutz and his team showed that brain circuits linked to empathy and the sharing of emotions - such as the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex - are much more active in long-term meditators than in novices
The great thing about meditation is that anyone can practice it anywhere. What's more you don't have to be an expert or spend five hours a day at it to reap the benefits. The novices in Zeidan's pain experiment reported improvements after meditating for just 20 minutes a day for three days. In a second experiment he found that similarly brief sessions can improve cognitive performance on tasks that demand continuous attention. "It is possible to produce substantial changes in brain function through short-term practice of meditation," says Richard Davidson, director of the Waisman Laboratory. He says data from a new unpublished study by his lab shows "demonstrable changes in brain function" in novice meditators after just two weeks of training for 30 minutes a day. "Even small amounts of practice can make a discernible difference."
Still, it does seem that the more you meditate, the greater the impact on your brain. Research by Brefczynski-Lewis, for example, revealed changes in brain activity indicating that expert meditators require only minimal cognitive effort to stay focused.