Does meditation make your brain work differently?

October 4, 2013

Dear Cecil:

I'm curious if science has made any inquiries into enlightenment via meditation, including Zen Buddhism and similar methods. If you strip out all of the mythological and moral aspects of it, Zen is little more than a way of training yourself to not think — to stop the internal verbal monologue. As I understand it, enlightenment means you have completely and permanently rid yourself of this monologue, bringing about major changes. Since thinking is a biological/electrical process, isn't this sort of thing measurable? Has there been any scientific investigation of this?

Cecil replies:

Oh, there’s been plenty. Longtime readers will recall the studies years ago by the Transcendental Meditation people, which among other things purported to show that a critical mass of meditation had reduced the violence in Lebanon. I have a special mantra I use when I come across claims like that: riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight.

There’s no wide agreement on what meditation is. Meditation as practiced by Christian monks, to cite the most obvious division, bears minimal resemblance to what their Buddhist brethren do. Even within the Eastern tradition, which is where one tends to see the extinction-of-individual-consciousness thing you’re talking about, we find a variety of techniques.

Some would argue these boil down to a basic two: concentrative meditation, also known as focused attention, where one concentrates on an object (a mantra, one’s own breathing); and “mindfulness,” where “the mind passively observes the spontaneous experience,” as one writer puts it. How does one accomplish the latter? At the risk of being thought cretinous, I’d say it sounds the same as concentrative meditation, except you don’t say “om.”

As for what Zen is “little more than” — that’s a typically reductive Western way of looking at things, grasshopper. Nonetheless, we do have a host of meditation practitioners making testable claims — for example, the TM crowd declares their technique improves cognitive function and increases intelligence. It’s to such folk we now turn.

In the journals one finds numerous reports like the following:

  • Researchers using an MRI scanner claimed parts of the brains of 22 longtime Zen Buddhist meditators were significantly larger than those of a control group.
  • Two studies of more than 100 meditation novices who were taught mindfulness meditation for 30 minutes a day found noticeable changes in brain connectivity and white matter function in just two weeks, and significant improvements after four weeks.
  • A study of Zen meditation practitioners with an average of 23 years of experience found their brain connectivity was significantly greater than that of controls.
  • Studies have reported that Zen meditation practitioners experienced much less loss of grey matter over the years than controls.
  • A study of cerebral blood flow in different types of long-term meditators, ranging from Tibetan Buddhists to Franciscan nuns, found roughly 10 percent greater flow in many areas of the brain, even when they weren’t meditating.

So, does meditation produce measurable physiological effects? I concede it’s possible, although I don’t see anything suggesting meditators have somehow ”permanently rid themselves of the monologue,” as you put it. But let’s take up a more important question: does meditation do you any actual good?

You can find mounds of research asserting that it does. A few items plucked from the stack:

  • Women who’d practiced TM for an average of 23 years were found to be a much lower risk for heart problems (due to lower cortisol levels, if that means anything to you) than controls.
  • A study of stress-reduction techniques for black men and women, a population disproportionately prone to cardiovascular disease, found that after eight years of TM training practitioners were only two-thirds as likely as a control group to have died or suffered a nonfatal heart attack or stroke.

You’ll notice in both cases the mention of TM, adherents of which have been remarkably energetic (it’s been what, 50 years?) in attempting to establish the scientific validity of what they’re doing.

I admire determination. However, an element of wishful thinking is surely involved here. For example, a recent review of 107 studies of the effect of TM on cognitive function found only ten to be scientifically valid. Of those, four reported a positive effect, four definitely didn’t, and two also didn’t but were less emphatic about it. In all four studies showing a benefit, the researchers had recruited subjects who were already doing TM or were enthusiastic about the prospect. In short, if we set aside studies of people biased in TM’s favor, the number showing a positive outcome was zilch.

Likewise, investigators funded by the NIH’s alternative-medicine group who analyzed 813 studies of five different meditation techniques offered this summary: “Scientific research on meditation practices does not appear to have a common theoretical perspective and is characterized by poor methodological quality. Firm conclusions on the effects of meditation practices in healthcare cannot be drawn based on the available evidence.”

Translation (honestly, the medical journals would be a lot livelier if they'd let me write the abstracts): the research sucks and doesn’t prove squat.

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References

Arias, Albert J., et al. "Systematic review of the efficacy of meditation techniques as treatments for medical illness." Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine 12.8 (2006): 817-832.

Canter, Peter H., and Edzard Ernst. "The cumulative effects of Transcendental Meditation on cognitive function—a systematic review of randomised controlled trials." Wiener Klinische Wochenschrift 115.21-22 (2003): 758-766.

Hartley, Louise, et al. "Transcendental meditation for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease." The Cochrane Library (2013).

Hölzel, Britta K., et al. "Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density." Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging 191.1 (2011): 36-43.

Lansky, Ephraim Philip, and Erik K. St Louis. "Transcendental meditation: A double-edged sword in epilepsy?" Epilepsy & Behavior 9.3 (2006): 394-400.

Luders, Eileen, et al. "Enhanced brain connectivity in long-term meditation practitioners." Neuroimage 57.4 (2011): 1308-1316.

Luders, Eileen, et al. "The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter." Neuroimage 45.3 (2009): 672-678.

Newberg, Andrew B. et al. “Cerebral blood flow differences between long-term meditators and non-meditators” Consciousness and Cognition 19 (20899–905.

Olex, Stephen, Andrew Newberg, and Vincent M. Figueredo. "Meditation: Should a cardiologist care?." International journal of cardiology (2013).

Orme-Johnson, D. W., V. A. Barnes, and R. H. Schneider. "Effects of the Transcendental Meditation Program on cardiovascular risk factors and clinical events." Heart & Mind: the Practice of Cardiac Psychology (2012).

Ospina, Maria. Meditation practices for health state of the research. No. 155. Diane Publishing, 2009.

Pagnoni, Giuseppe, and Milos Cekic. "Age effects on gray matter volume and attentional performance in Zen meditation." Neurobiology of Aging 28.10 (2007): 1623-1627.

Peressutti, Caroline, et al. "Heart rate dynamics in different levels of Zen meditation." International Journal of Cardiology 145.1 (2010): 142-146.

Schneider, Robert H., et al. "Stress Reduction in the Secondary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease Randomized, Controlled Trial of Transcendental Meditation and Health Education in Blacks." Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes 5.6 (2012): 750-758.

Tang, Yi-Yuan, et al. "Mechanisms of white matter changes induced by meditation." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109.26 (2012): 10570-10574.

Toneatto, Tony, and Linda Nguyen. "Does mindfulness meditation improve anxiety and mood symptoms? A review of the controlled research." The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry (2007).

Walton, Kenneth G., et al. "Lowering cortisol and CVD risk in postmenopausal women: a pilot study using the Transcendental Meditation program." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1032.1 (2004): 211-215.

Wang, Danny J.J. et al. “Cerebral blood flow changes associated with different meditation practices and perceived depth of meditation” Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging 191 (2060–67.

Xue, Shaowei, Yi-Yuan Tang, and Michael I. Posner. "Short-term meditation increases network efficiency of the anterior cingulate cortex." Neuroreport 22.12 (2011): 570-574.

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