Meditation Causes Positive Changes in the Brain
I’ve already written on how the practice of meditation can change not only our lives, but – at a very profound and empirical level – can actually change how our brain works.
In this post, I’m going to let a true expert in the field take over and provide you with an incredible lecture on brain changes that can be accomplished through contemplative practices. I’m posting a link to a lecture by Dr. Davidson at the end of this introduction (you can go directly there by scrolling to the end of this post). Enjoy.
Dr. Davidson is the Director of the W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior, the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience and the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is responsible for many of the innovative inquiries into meditation that have been carried out at the Keck Lab.
The major theme of Davidson’s research into contemplative and meditative practices is the observance that something goes on in the mind, or at least the brain, of individuals trained in meditative practices. The “something” that occurs varies depending upon the scope of the study, but a key similarity between his studies of meditation is that the brain of an individual who has a regular meditative practice appears more adept at reorganizing or recruiting certain neural pathways and processes to deal with challenges than does the brain of someone who does not have such a practice.
Repeated Studies Prove the Benefits of Meditation
In a number of studies, Dr. Davidson and his colleagues have enrolled long- and short-term meditators, some monks and other lay practitioners, to determine whether mindfulness and meditation have any observable affect on the brain and neural correlates of cognitive processes.[i] [ii] [iii] What Davidson and his colleagues have observed in these groundbreaking studies is that specific regions of the brain responsible for information-processing and emotional regulation can be mediated and modulated through the means of meditative practices. Additionally, by enrolling individuals new to meditation and comparing them to experienced meditators, Davidson has not only shown us that with experience, positive results can increase, but he’s also reminded us that with sufficient intent and practice, we are all capable of making these changes and that we can in fact get from “here” to “there.”
Here’s the link to his YouTube lecture; gotta love it!! Transform Your Mind, Change Your Brain.
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[i] Lutz A, Brefczynski-Lewis J, Johnstone T, Davidson RJ. “Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise.” PLoS ONE, March 2008, Volume 3 Issue 3 e1897.
Recent brain-imaging studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have implicated insula and anterior cingulate cortices in the empathic response to another’s pain. However, virtually nothing is known about the impact of the voluntary generation of compassion on this network. To investigate these questions we assessed brain activity using fMRI while novice and expert meditation practitioners generated a loving-kindness-compassion meditation state. To probe affective reactivity, we presented emotional and neutral sounds during the meditation and comparison periods. Our main hypothesis was that the concern for others cultivated during this form of meditation enhances affective processing, in particular in response to sounds of distress, and that this response to emotional sounds is modulated by the degree of meditation training. The presentation of the emotional sounds was associated with increased pupil diameter and activation of limbic regions (insula and cingulate cortices) during meditation (versus rest). During meditation, activation in insula was greater during presentation of negative sounds than positive or neutral sounds in expert than it was in novice meditators. The strength of activation in insula was also associated with self-reported intensity of the meditation for both groups. These results support the role of the limbic circuitry in emotion sharing. The comparison between meditation vs. rest states between experts and novices also showed increased activation in amygdala, right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ), and right posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) in response to all sounds, suggesting greater detection of the emotional sounds and enhanced mentation in response to emotional human vocalizations for experts than novices during meditation. Together these data indicate that the mental expertise to cultivate positive emotion alters the activation of circuitries previously linked to empathy and theory of mind in response to emotional stimuli.
[ii] Lutz A, Greischar LL, Perlman D, Davidson RJ. “BOLD Signal in Insula Is Differentially Related to Cardiac Function During Compassion 2 Meditation in Experts vs. Novices. Neuroimage, 2009 Sep;47(3):1038–46.
The brain and the cardiovascular system influence each other during the processing of emotion. The study of the interactions of these systems during emotion regulation has been limited in human functional neuroimaging, despite its potential importance for physical health. We have previously reported that mental expertise in cultivation of compassion alters the activation of circuits linked with empathy and theory of mind in response to emotional stimuli. Guided by the finding that heart rate increases more during blocks of compassion meditation than neutral states, especially for experts, we examined the interaction between state (compassion vs. neutral) and group (novice, expert) on the relation between heart rate and BOLD signal during presentation of emotional sounds presented during each state. Our findings revealed that BOLD signal in the right middle insula showed a significant association with heart rate (HR) across state and group. This association was stronger in the left middle/posterior insula when experts were compared to novices. The positive coupling of HR and BOLD was higher within the compassion state than within the neutral state in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex for both groups, underlining the role of this region in the modulation of bodily arousal states. This state effect was stronger for experts than novices in somatosensory cortices and the right inferior parietal lobule (group by state interaction). These data confirm that compassion enhances the emotional and somatosensory brain representations of others’ emotions and that this effect is modulated by expertise. Future studies are needed to further investigate the impact of compassion training on these circuits.
[iii] Slagter HA, Lutz A, Greischar LL, Francis AD, Nieuwenhuis S, Davis JM, Davidson RJ. “Mental Training Affects Distribution of Limited Brain Resources.” PLos Biology, 2007 Jun;5(6):e138.
The information-processing capacity of the human mind is limited, as is evidenced by the so-called “attentional-blink” deficit: when two targets (T1 and T2) embedded in a rapid stream of events are presented in close temporal proximity, the second target is often not seen. This deficit is believed to result from competition between the two targets for limited attentional resources. Here we show, using performance in an attentional-blink task and scalp-recorded brain potentials, that meditation, or mental training, affects the distribution of limited brain resources. Three months of intensive mental training resulted in a smaller attentional blink and reduced brain-resource allocation to the first target, as reflected by a smaller T1-elicited P3b, a brain-potential index of resource allocation. Furthermore, those individuals who showed the largest decrease in brain-resource allocation to T1 generally showed the greatest reduction in attentional-blink size. These observations provide novel support for the view that the ability to accurately identify T2 depends upon the efficient deployment of resources to T1. The results also demonstrate that mental training can result in increased control over the distribution of limited brain resources. Our study supports the idea that plasticity in brain and mental function exists throughout life and illustrates the usefulness of systematic mental training in the study of the human mind.