Within the past decade, mindfulness practices have soared in popularity, despite having existed for over 2,000 years. This is largely due to the strides in scientific research conducted to quantifiably measure the effects of mindfulness meditation on the brain and body. With the expansion of research studies, there is a large motivating factor at play: the idea that mindfulness practices can be viably applied as a therapeutic treatment option for physical and mental health. The results reveal that meditation touts several positive impacts, and can combat a variety of both medical and psychological conditions, including chronic pain, depression, and anxiety. Despite the promising research efforts, there is a healthy degree of skepticism surrounding the practice of meditation. These sentiments are to be expected, particularly because research in this area was once minimal, and has only fully taken off in the past decade. Fortunately, we now have tangible scientific data to back what many have believed to be true for the last two millennia. Nonetheless, the divide is palpable: on one side, an impassioned community that maintains the health and wellness benefits of mindfulness practices; on another, an opposing community that pushes back on this notion, insisting that meditation doesn’t hold water in the realms of psychological and medical treatments. We’ll be breaking down a few research data points and demonstrating the tangible effects that mindfulness meditation has on the brain, and allow our readers to make up their minds on the matter of mindfulness.
Mindfulness Meditation = Better Test Scores
The basis of mindfulness is quite simple: focus on the present, and draw awareness to the moment. In a world of social media, Candy Crush, and adorable cat videos, the infinite distractions available to us on a perpetual basis condition our brains to constantly wander. The impact is all too apparent: due to the increase in attention-deficit symptoms and ADHD diagnoses in recent years, some experts are led to believe that screen time and digital media exposure are linked to this spike. In an attempt to counter this decrease in focus and concentration, a recent study was conducted to test the effects of mindfulness training on concentration levels. Participants of the study committed to mindfulness training for a mere two weeks, with the final measurement tool being a standardized test – specifically, the GRE, a 4-hour exam that requires undeviating concentration. The participants, who all displayed distractive tendencies prior to mindfulness training, achieved improved scores on the reading comprehension section of the exam. Their average score improvements translated to 16 percentile points, which is quite a substantial achievement in standardized testing. The experts leading the study were pleased with the outcome after only two weeks of implementing mindfulness techniques, and believe that this lends meditation greater credibility in the efforts to improve concentration, focus, and working memory capacity. To all the students out there: give meditation a go prior to your next big exam, and see if you can give those scores a healthy boost!
The Relationship Between Mindfulness Meditation and Emotional Processing
While Gaelle Desbordes was a graduate student studying computational neuroscience, she was naturally under a great deal of stress. Seeking to relieve the stress and anxiety of intensive academia, she came upon meditation. To her delight, she found that the practice truly helped manage her stress levels. As a neuroscientist, her positive experiences prompted her scientific curiosity: “How does this work? What is this doing to me? [I wanted] to understand the mechanisms to see if it can help others. If we want that to be a therapy or something offered in the community, we need to demonstrate its benefits scientifically.” Teaming up with Benjamin Shapero, a Harvard Medical School professor and a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, they sought to study the effects of mindfulness meditation on psychological and physical conditions, with emphasis on depression. They employed fMRI, functional magnetic resonance imaging, a technique that captures images of the brain while simultaneously tracking brain activity. This afforded them the capacity to measure brain wave patterns of research subjects.
The subjects, none of whom had any prior experience with meditation, underwent a two-month meditation trial. Desbordes chose to measure their brain activity while they performed daily tasks, as opposed to while they were meditating. The data revealed significant changes in the subjects’ brain activation patterns following consistent mindfulness practices. This also reflects the theory that meditation is more than just a short-term remedy – the effects on the brain last past the period of active meditation, and remained consistent throughout other activities and through the end of the study. These changes were detected in the amygdala, a region of the brain responsible for stress and anxiety-based emotions, as well as the processing of fear. Upon their pre-meditation brain scans, wherein the subjects were asked to view emotionally-driven and occasionally upsetting images, the amygdala was predictably activated. Following eight weeks of meditation training, the new brain scans demonstrated reduced amygdala activation. This seemed to demonstrate the notion that meditation could effectively assist in emotional regulation, particularly with negative emotions.
Age-Defying Effects of Meditation
With age comes an unfortunate reality: the process of cognitive decline. Entering a room and forgetting what you wanted to retrieve, inability to recall certain memories or words, and difficulty processing information are all common symptoms that occur as we enter our later years. A 2015 study was conducted with the intention of discovering if and how meditation could impact age-related cognitive functions. The study included a group of 50 long-term meditation practitioners, and a control group of 50 subjects who lacked prior mindfulness meditation experience. Ages of subjects in both groups ranged between 24-77 years old. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), they secured detailed images of all participating subjects that allowed them to compare and contrast the differences between both groups.
Grey matter of the brain is primarily made up of neuronal cell bodies. This is what grants us muscle control and coordination, as well as the capacity to process information, memory, and emotion. As we age, we experience gray matter loss. A certain degree of grey matter loss, especially when paired with genetic susceptibility, contributes to a higher risk of neurodegenerative diseases that include dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. In reviewing the brain images, it was discovered that while grey matter loss was present in both groups, the decline was considerably greater in the non-meditative group. The results of this study illustrated the notion that while meditation could not entirely halt the aging symptoms of the brain, it can slow down the process.
How You Can Personally Measure The Impact of Mindfulness Practices
EEG, or electroencephalography, is a testing method of monitoring electrical activity in the brain. Within many mindfulness meditation studies, monitoring brain waves was at the forefront of their research. By being able to accurately track the effects of virtually any stimulus or practice, they are granted much more insight into the detailed effects of mindfulness on the brain over an extended period. While such apparatuses were once only reserved for medical professionals and scientists, the advancement of technology has allowed the layperson to get their hands on them as well. There are now consumer-grade EEG devices available to the public, lending us the capacity to conduct analyses on our own! Tracking our brainwave activities on a consistent or intermittent basis will be able to provide us with the same quantified insight on what’s working, and what’s not.
Research on the effects of mindfulness meditation are constantly expanding. As more studies are conducted, we will inevitably have more data to work with in order to appropriately apply these techniques to specific conditions. What we do have evidence of at this point is that consistent mindfulness meditation can extend past the actual practice and into our daily lives. The measurements of meditators’ brain activity outside of meditative practice are profound; they allow us to draw the conclusion that it can productively alter our brains in the long-term to be happier, healthier, and more present.