Does meditation make your brain work differently?

SHARE Does meditation make your brain work differently?

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? Adam Price


Illustration by Slug Signorino

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.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via