Meditation affects a person’s brain function long after the act of meditation is over, according to new research.
“This is the first time meditation training has been shown to affect emotional processing in the brain outside of a meditative state,” said Gaelle Desbordes, Ph.D., a research fellow at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital and at the Boston University Center for Computational Neuroscience and Neural Technology.
“Overall, these results are consistent with the overarching hypothesis that meditation may result in enduring, beneficial changes in brain function, especially in the area of emotional processing.”
The researchers began the study with the hypothesis that meditation can help control emotional responses.
During meditation, a part of the brain called the amygdala (known for the processing of emotional stimuli) showed decreased activity. However, when the participants were shown images of other people that were either good, bad, or neutral for a practice known as “compassion meditation,” the amygdala was exceptionally responsive.
The subjects were able to focus their attention and greatly reduce their emotional reactions. And over an eight-week period, the participants retained this ability.
Even when they were not engaged in a meditative state, their emotional responses were subdued, and they experienced more compassion for others when faced with disturbing images.
Around the same time, another group at Harvard Medical School (HMS) began to study the effect of meditation on retaining information. Their hypothesis was that people who meditate have more control over alpha rhythm — a brain wave thought to screen out everyday distractions, allowing for more important information to be processed.
“Mindfulness meditation has been reported to enhance numerous mental abilities, including rapid memory recall,” said Catherine Kerr of the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and the Osher Research Center, both at HMS.
“Our discovery that mindfulness meditators more quickly adjusted the brain wave that screens out distraction could explain their superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts.”
Both studies used participants that had no previous experience with meditation.
Over an eight-week period and a 12-week period, both groups showed a marked change in their daily normal brain function, while they were meditating and while they were involved in medial activities.
Some researchers believe that meditation might be the key to help ease off dependency on pharmaceutical drugs.
“The implications extend far beyond meditation,” said Kerr.
“They give us clues about possible ways to help people better regulate a brain rhythm that is deregulated in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and other conditions.”