I am a researcher in Physics at the University of Cambridge
Meditation can offer more than a way to relax and clear the mind- it has distinct biological effects
Meditation can keep you young- at least that’s what recent research into this ancient practise is suggesting.
The origins of meditation can be traced back thousands of years. Over time it has come to be associated with spiritual development and religion. In the 21st century, meditation has found a broader appeal- to help people deal with the demands of modern life.
Recent reports from the US (Cramer et al, Scientific Reports) show that more and more people are turning to meditation for mental wellbeing. General wellness, higher energy levels, combatting stress and anxiety are all top reasons for meditation, according to the study.
But is there any scientific basis to these reasons to meditate? Are there measurable effects of mediation on the brain?
The answer is yes. Recent research, represented by the selection below, show that there are quantitative measures of the biological effects of meditation on the brain. Notably, it has been shown that meditation can slow age-related decline of the brain. Less age-related gray matter and a slower loss of pre-frontal cortex gray matter have both been found in people who have been regularly practising yoga for over periods of years.
Abstract: Emerging evidence suggests substantial health benefits from using meditation. While there are some indications that the popularity of meditation is increasing, little is known about the prevalence, patterns, and predictors of meditation use in the general population. In this secondary analysis of data from the 2012 US National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) (n = 34,525), lifetime and 12-month prevalence of meditation use were 5.2% and 4.1%, respectively. Compared to non-users, those who had used meditation in the past 12 months were more likely to be 40-64 years, female, non-Hispanic White, living in the West, at least college-educated, not in a relationship, diagnosed with one or more chronic conditions, smoking, consuming alcohol and physically active. Meditation was mainly used for general wellness (76.2%), improving energy (60.0%), and aiding memory or concentration (50.0%). Anxiety (29.2%), stress (21.6%), and depression (17.8%) were the top health problems for which people used meditation; 63.6% reported that meditation had helped a great deal with these conditions. Only 34.8% disclosed their use of meditation with a health provider. These findings indicate that about 9.3 million US adults have used meditation in the past 12 months; and that mental health problems were the most important reason for meditation use.
Pub.: 11 Nov '16, Pinned: 16 May '17
Abstract: Contemplative practices can have profound effects on mindfulness and on physical and sensory and mystical experiences. Individuals who self-reported meditation, yoga, contemplative prayer, or a combination of practices and their patterns of practice were compared for mindfulness, kundalini effects, and mystical experiences. The results suggest that the amount of practice but not the pattern and social conditions of practice influences mindfulness and possibly mystical experiences. Meditation, yoga, contemplative prayer, or a combination of practices all were found to be associated with enhancements of mindfulness, kundalini effects, and mystical experiences, but meditation had particularly strong associations and may be the basis of the associations of yoga and prayer with these outcomes. The results further suggest that the primary association of contemplative practices is with the real time awareness and appreciation of sensory and perceptual experiences which may be the intermediary between disparate practices and mindfulness, kundalini effects, and mystical experiences.
Pub.: 24 May '15, Pinned: 16 May '17
Abstract: In light of a growing interest in contemplative practices such as meditation, the emerging field of contemplative science has been challenged to describe and objectively measure how these practices affect health and well-being. While “mindfulness” itself has been proposed as a measurable outcome of contemplative practices, this concept encompasses multiple components, some of which, as we review here, may be better characterized as equanimity. Equanimity can be defined as an even-minded mental state or dispositional tendency toward all experiences or objects, regardless of their origin or their affective valence (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral). In this article, we propose that equanimity be used as an outcome measure in contemplative research. We first define and discuss the inter-relationship between mindfulness and equanimity from the perspectives of both classical Buddhism and modern psychology and present existing meditation techniques for cultivating equanimity. We then review psychological, physiological, and neuroimaging methods that have been used to assess equanimity either directly or indirectly. In conclusion, we propose that equanimity captures potentially the most important psychological element in the improvement of well-being, and therefore should be a focus in future research studies.
Pub.: 21 Jan '14, Pinned: 16 May '17
Abstract: While overall life expectancy has been increasing, the human brain still begins deteriorating after the first two decades of life and continues degrading further with increasing age. Thus, techniques that diminish the negative impact of aging on the brain are desirable. Existing research, although scarce, suggests meditation to be an attractive candidate in the quest for an accessible and inexpensive, efficacious remedy. Here, we examined the link between age and cerebral gray matter re-analyzing a large sample (n = 100) of long-term meditators and control subjects aged between 24 and 77 years. When correlating global and local gray matter with age, we detected negative correlations within both controls and meditators, suggesting a decline over time. However, the slopes of the regression lines were steeper and the correlation coefficients were stronger in controls than in meditators. Moreover, the age-affected brain regions were much more extended in controls than in meditators, with significant group-by-age interactions in numerous clusters throughout the brain. Altogether, these findings seem to suggest less age-related gray matter atrophy in long-term meditation practitioners.
Pub.: 06 Feb '15, Pinned: 16 May '17
Abstract: The subjective experience of one's environment is constructed by interactions among sensory, cognitive, and affective processes. For centuries, meditation has been thought to influence such processes by enabling a nonevaluative representation of sensory events. To better understand how meditation influences the sensory experience, we used arterial spin labeling functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess the neural mechanisms by which mindfulness meditation influences pain in healthy human participants. After 4 d of mindfulness meditation training, meditating in the presence of noxious stimulation significantly reduced pain unpleasantness by 57% and pain intensity ratings by 40% when compared to rest. A two-factor repeated-measures ANOVA was used to identify interactions between meditation and pain-related brain activation. Meditation reduced pain-related activation of the contralateral primary somatosensory cortex. Multiple regression analysis was used to identify brain regions associated with individual differences in the magnitude of meditation-related pain reductions. Meditation-induced reductions in pain intensity ratings were associated with increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula, areas involved in the cognitive regulation of nociceptive processing. Reductions in pain unpleasantness ratings were associated with orbitofrontal cortex activation, an area implicated in reframing the contextual evaluation of sensory events. Moreover, reductions in pain unpleasantness also were associated with thalamic deactivation, which may reflect a limbic gating mechanism involved in modifying interactions between afferent input and executive-order brain areas. Together, these data indicate that meditation engages multiple brain mechanisms that alter the construction of the subjectively available pain experience from afferent information.
Pub.: 08 Apr '11, Pinned: 16 May '17
Abstract: Mindfulness-based meditation interventions have become increasingly popular in contemporary psychology. Other closely related meditation practices include loving-kindness meditation (LKM) and compassion meditation (CM), exercises oriented toward enhancing unconditional, positive emotional states of kindness and compassion. This article provides a review of the background, the techniques, and the empirical contemporary literature of LKM and CM. The literature suggests that LKM and CM are associated with an increase in positive affect and a decrease in negative affect. Preliminary findings from neuroendocrine studies indicate that CM may reduce stress-induced subjective distress and immune response. Neuroimaging studies suggest that LKM and CM may enhance activation of brain areas that are involved in emotional processing and empathy. Finally, preliminary intervention studies support application of these strategies in clinical populations. It is concluded that, when combined with empirically supported treatments, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, LKM and CM may provide potentially useful strategies for targeting a variety of different psychological problems that involve interpersonal processes, such as depression, social anxiety, marital conflict, anger, and coping with the strains of long-term caregiving.
Pub.: 16 Aug '11, Pinned: 16 May '17
Abstract: Loving kindness is a form of meditation involving directed well-wishing, typically supported by the silent repetition of phrases such as "may all beings be happy," to foster a feeling of selfless love. Here we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess the neural substrate of loving kindness meditation in experienced meditators and novices. We first assessed group differences in blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) signal during loving kindness meditation. We next used a relatively novel approach, the intrinsic connectivity distribution of functional connectivity, to identify regions that differ in intrinsic connectivity between groups, and then used a data-driven approach to seed-based connectivity analysis to identify which connections differ between groups. Our findings suggest group differences in brain regions involved in self-related processing and mind wandering, emotional processing, inner speech, and memory. Meditators showed overall reduced BOLD signal and intrinsic connectivity during loving kindness as compared to novices, more specifically in the posterior cingulate cortex/precuneus (PCC/PCu), a finding that is consistent with our prior work and other recent neuroimaging studies of meditation. Furthermore, meditators showed greater functional connectivity during loving kindness between the PCC/PCu and the left inferior frontal gyrus, whereas novices showed greater functional connectivity during loving kindness between the PCC/PCu and other cortical midline regions of the default mode network, the bilateral posterior insula lobe, and the bilateral parahippocampus/hippocampus. These novel findings suggest that loving kindness meditation involves a present-centered, selfless focus for meditators as compared to novices.
Pub.: 20 Jun '14, Pinned: 15 May '17
Abstract: Meditation has been associated with relatively reduced activity in the default mode network, a brain network implicated in self-related thinking and mind wandering. However, previous imaging studies have typically compared meditation to rest, despite other studies having reported differences in brain activation patterns between meditators and controls at rest. Moreover, rest is associated with a range of brain activation patterns across individuals that has only recently begun to be better characterized. Therefore, in this study we compared meditation to another active cognitive task, both to replicate the findings that meditation is associated with relatively reduced default mode network activity and to extend these findings by testing whether default mode activity was reduced during meditation, beyond the typical reductions observed during effortful tasks. In addition, prior studies had used small groups, whereas in the present study we tested these hypotheses in a larger group. The results indicated that meditation is associated with reduced activations in the default mode network, relative to an active task, for meditators as compared to controls. Regions of the default mode network showing a Group × Task interaction included the posterior cingulate/precuneus and anterior cingulate cortex. These findings replicate and extend prior work indicating that the suppression of default mode processing may represent a central neural process in long-term meditation, and they suggest that meditation leads to relatively reduced default mode processing beyond that observed during another active cognitive task.
Pub.: 24 Apr '15, Pinned: 15 May '17
Abstract: Many philosophical and contemplative traditions teach that "living in the moment" increases happiness. However, the default mode of humans appears to be that of mind-wandering, which correlates with unhappiness, and with activation in a network of brain areas associated with self-referential processing. We investigated brain activity in experienced meditators and matched meditation-naive controls as they performed several different meditations (Concentration, Loving-Kindness, Choiceless Awareness). We found that the main nodes of the default-mode network (medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices) were relatively deactivated in experienced meditators across all meditation types. Furthermore, functional connectivity analysis revealed stronger coupling in experienced meditators between the posterior cingulate, dorsal anterior cingulate, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices (regions previously implicated in self-monitoring and cognitive control), both at baseline and during meditation. Our findings demonstrate differences in the default-mode network that are consistent with decreased mind-wandering. As such, these provide a unique understanding of possible neural mechanisms of meditation.
Pub.: 25 Nov '11, Pinned: 15 May '17