Dateline, Portland, Oregon--Amelia J. Wilcox, Ph.D.: Mindfulness-meditation is getting serious attention from scientists and consumers alike. Businesses are including it in their benefit packages, elementary schools are recognizing its power to improve classroom atmosphere, and psychologists are incorporating it into many treatments for conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression, pain management and insomnia. How, exactly, does it work on the brain?
A number of years ago, psychologist and neuroscientist Richard Davidson began to look at meditation. In an effort to gain a clear picture of its effect on the brain, body and psyche, he went straight to the master-meditation source, Tibetan Buddhist monks. Monks in this tradition work for decades to become fully skilled in meditation practice, and they demonstrate the many positive effects of leading a life of contemplation. Monks are capable of a quality of focus, clarity, emotional control and mastery over bodily experience most of us would probably never expect to have in our own busy lives.
Can average people gain meditation’s benefit?
Davidson wondered whether some of the benefits of mindfulness-meditation practices could be taught to ordinary people with busy and stressful lives, and if so, whether the people who mastered basic skills would have a different experience of their world. To explore his idea that meditation might change people’s lives for the better, he brought a simple meditation training course to busy US executives. Eight weeks later he compared them to a matched sample of executives who had gone about life as usual.
Neural findings and experiential changes:
Davidson’s findings were powerful. EEG and fMRI data demonstrated that those who were taught simple meditation techniques shifted brain activity from parts of the brain associated with hypervigilance and stress toward brain regions associated with more positive mood states. Meditators in Davidson’s study also demonstrated improved immune response, when compared to those who were not taught simple meditation techniques.
What happens in the brain when we meditate:
Decades ago, neuropsychologist Donald Hebb coined the phrase neurons that fire together wire together. Some years later neuroscientists Per Andersen and Terje Lomo did basic brain research that led to the discovery of long-term potentiation, the scientific observation of Hebb’s neuropsychological theory. What does this have to do with meditation? Neurons that learn to fire together are developing habitual patters of action that have behavioral, emotional and learning correlates. As this applies to meditation and the frontal lobes, specifically, the meditating brain increases left prefrontal activation. With repeated practice, this activation becomes easier to produce, because healthy and functional neural pathways are created in the brain, and are strengthened and reinforced through meditation exposure. This is but one example of what is likely to be happening when you sit down to meditate.
Theory or practice, most people I know who make meditation part of their lives have a great deal to say about its positive impact on their mood and stress levels. And the research seems to back them up—indicating regular meditation may have powerful effects on a host of symptoms that are accepted as part of being alive in a stressful age.
People flock to yoga studios and meditation retreats in order to capture some of the effects in their own lives. But research indicates that even a few minutes a day spent in meditation, even if they happen while sitting at your desk, waiting in the carpool line or just before taking a big test in school, can lead to improvements in attention, concentration and clarity, and an improved sense of well-being.
How do you get started? There are countless meditation apps available for your smart phone. Find one that works for you and see how it goes—keep a journal to track your progress. See what happens when your neurons fire together and wire together.