Long-lasting Effects of Meditationby Jennifer Gibson, PharmD | December 27, 2012
Meditation has longed been used to calm the mind and the body, but the long-term effects of such practices are difficult to evaluate. Recently, a team of investigators studied the effects of mindful meditation on emotional processing and reported that meditation may induce lasting effects in the emotional processes in the brain.
For the study, 51 heathy adults aged 25 to 55 years, with no prior meditation experience, underwent mindful attention training (MAT), cognitively-based compassion training (CBCT), or participated in a health discussion group. MAT teaches meditative techniques for enhancing awareness of a person’s internal and external environments; CBCT is a program based on Buddhist practices of compassion meditation. The health discussion group served as the control group.Each group participated in its respective intervention for 2 hours per week for 8 weeks. The MAT and CBCT groups were also asked to meditate daily for 20 minutes at home. Before and after the study, the participants completed inventories of self-reported depression and anxiety. They also underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging scans while in a non-meditative state during which they were shown pictures of people and asked to identify the people as positive, negative, or neutral.
After the training, the MAT group showed a significant decrease in right amygdala activation – the area of the brain responsible for emotional response – in response to the positive photos. The CBCT group also showed a decreased response to the positive images and an increased response to the negative images, but the differences were not significant. The CBCT group did experience a significant decrease in depression scores, however. The control group showed no changes.
The authors of the study conclude that meditation training designed to enhance feelings of compassion led to a permanent increase in amygdala response to seeing other people suffer (i.e., the negative images.) The authors believe that the decreased depression scores also prove that meditation is beneficial to a person’s own well-being. Overall, the meditation induced training that was not task- or stimulus-specific, but, rather, process-specific. The authors hypothesize that the process-specific changes may lead to long-lasting changes in mental function.
Mediation is a process or activity designed to reduce irrelevant thoughts by enhancing internalized attention. Meditation has been shown to decrease stress, improve relaxation, enhance emotional stability, and increase concentration. Physical health is also improved by meditation, though the mechanisms by which meditation produces its effects are unclear. Still, meditation has led to significant clinical improvement in mental health disorders including anxiety, depression, affective disorders, and attention deficits. Meditation is being evaluated as an intervention for other mental illnesses.
The results of the current study are encouraging for meditation as a long-term intervention, but the results are far from conclusive. The sample size was small and most of the results were not statistically significant. Though, the findings do support a mind-over-matter approach to emotional processing and indicate that it might be possible to alter brain function with a little training. We could all use a little more compassion and a little less anxiety and depression these days. And, if a few minutes of meditation can get us there, then just say “Om.”
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