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Can meditation change your brain? Contemplative neuroscientists believe it can
October 26th, 2010
08:45 AM ET

Can meditation change your brain? Contemplative neuroscientists believe it can

From CNN's Dan Gilgoff:

Can people strengthen the brain circuits associated with happiness and positive behavior,  just as we’re able to strengthen muscles with exercise?

Richard Davidson, who for decades has practiced Buddhist-style meditation – a form of mental exercise, he says – insists that we can.

And Davidson, who has been meditating since visiting India as a Harvard grad student in the 1970s, has credibility on the subject beyond his own experience.

A trained psychologist based at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, he has become the leader of a relatively new field called contemplative neuroscience - the brain science of meditation.

Over the last decade, Davidson and his colleagues have produced scientific evidence for the theory that meditation - the ancient eastern practice of sitting, usually accompanied by focusing on certain objects - permanently changes the brain for the better.

“We all know that if you engage in certain kinds of exercise on a regular basis you can strengthen certain muscle groups in predictable ways,” Davidson says in his office at the University of Wisconsin, where his research team has hosted scores of Buddhist monks and other meditators for brain scans.

“Strengthening neural systems is not fundamentally different,” he says. “It’s basically replacing certain habits of mind with other habits.”

Contemplative neuroscientists say that making a habit of meditation can strengthen brain circuits responsible for maintaining concentration and generating empathy.

One recent study by Davidson’s team found that novice meditators stimulated their limbic systems - the brain’s emotional network - during the practice of compassion meditation, an ancient Tibetan Buddhist practice.

That’s no great surprise, given that compassion meditation aims to produce a specific emotional state of intense empathy, sometimes call “lovingkindness.”

But the study also found that expert meditators - monks with more than 10,000 hours of practice - showed significantly greater activation of their limbic systems. The monks appeared to have permanently changed their brains to be more empathetic.

An earlier study by some of the same researchers found that committed meditators experienced sustained changes in baseline brain function, meaning that they had changed the way their brains operated even outside of meditation.

These changes included ramped-up activation of a brain region thought to be responsible for generating positive emotions, called the left-sided anterior region. The researchers found this change in novice meditators who’d enrolled in a course in mindfulness meditation - a technique that borrows heavily from Buddhism - that lasted just eight weeks.

But most brain research around meditation is still preliminary, waiting to be corroborated by other scientists. Meditation’s psychological benefits and its use in treatments for conditions as diverse as depression and chronic pain are more widely acknowledged.

Serious brain science around meditation has emerged only in about the last decade, since the birth of functional MRI allowed scientists to begin watching the brain and monitoring its changes in relatively real time.

Beginning in the late 1990s, a University of Pennsylvania-based researcher named Andrew Newberg said that his brain scans of experienced meditators showed the prefrontal cortex - the area of the brain that houses attention - surging into overdrive during meditation while the brain region governing our orientation in time and space, called the superior parietal lobe, went dark. (One of his scans is pictured, above.)

Newberg said his findings explained why meditators are able to cultivate intense concentration while also describing feelings of transcendence during meditation.

But some scientists said Newberg was over-interpreting his brain scans. Others said he failed to specify the kind of meditation he was studying, making his studies impossible to reproduce. His popular books, like Why God Won’t Go Away, caused more eye-rolling among neuroscientists, who said he hyped his findings to goose sales.

“It caused mainstream scientists to say that the only work that has been done in the field is of terrible quality,” says Alasdair Coles, a lecturer in neurology at England’s University of Cambridge.

Newberg, now at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia, stands by his research.

And contemplative neuroscience had gained more credibility in the scientific community since his early scans.

One sign of that is increased funding from the National Institutes of Health, which has helped establish new contemplative science research centers at Stanford University, Emory University, and the University of Wisconsin, where the world’s first brain imaging lab with a meditation room next door is now under construction.

The NIH could not provide numbers on how much it gives specifically to meditation brain research but its grants in complementary and alternative medicine - which encompass many meditation studies - have risen from around $300 million in 2007 to an estimated $541 million in 2011.

“The original investigations by people like Davidson in the 1990s were seen as intriguing, but it took some time to be convinced that brain processes were really changing during meditation,” says Josephine Briggs, Director of the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Most studies so far have examined so-called focused-attention meditation, in which the practitioner concentrates on a particular subject, such as the breath. The meditator monitors the quality of attention and, when it drifts, returns attention to the object.

Over time, practitioners are supposed to find it easier to sustain attention during and outside of meditation.

In a 2007 study, Davidson compared the attentional abilities of novice meditators to experts in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Participants in both groups were asked to practice focused-attention meditation on a fixed dot on a screen while researchers ran fMRI scans of their brains.

To challenge the participants’ attentional abilities, the scientists interrupted the meditations with distracting sounds.

The brain scans found that both experienced and novice meditators activated a network of attention-related regions of the brain during meditation. But the experienced meditators showed more activation in some of those regions.

The inexperienced meditators, meanwhile, showed increased activation in brain regions that have been shown to negatively correlate with sustaining attention. Experienced meditators were better able to activate their attentional networks to maintain concentration on the dot. They had, the study suggested, changed their brains.

The fMRI scans also showed that experienced meditators had less neural response to the distracting noises that interrupted the meditation.

In fact, the more hours of experience a meditator had, the scans found, the less active his or her emotional networks were during the distracting sounds, which meant the easier it was to focus.

More recently, contemplative neuroscience has turned toward compassion meditation, which involves generating empathy through objectless awareness; practitioners call it non-referential compassion meditation.

New neuroscientific interest in the practice comes largely at the urging of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and politial leader of Tibetan Buddhists, for whom compassion meditation is a time-worn tradition.

The Dalai Lama has arranged for Tibetan monks to travel to American universities for brain scans and has spoken at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, the world’s largest gathering of brain scientists.

A religious leader, the Dalai Lama has said he supports contemplative neuroscience even though scientists are stripping meditation of its Buddhist roots, treating it purely as a mental exercise that more or less anyone can do.

“This is not a project about religion,” says Davidson. “Meditation is mental activity that could be understood in secular terms.”

Still, the nascent field faces challenges. Scientists have scanned just a few hundred brains on meditation do date, which makes for a pretty small research sample. And some scientists say researchers are over eager to use brain science to prove the that meditation “works.”

“This is a field that has been populated by true believers,” says Emory University scientist Charles Raison, who has studied meditation’s effect on the immune system. “Many of the people doing this research are trying to prove scientifically what they already know from experience, which is a major flaw."

But Davidson says that other types of scientists also have deep personal interest in what they’re studying. And he argues that that’s a good thing.

“There’s a cadre of grad students and post docs who’ve found personal value in meditation and have been inspired to study it scientifically,” Davidson says. “These are people at the very best universities and they want to do this for a career.

“In ten years,” he says, “we’ll find that meditation research has become mainstream.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Buddhism • Culture & Science • Meditation

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soundoff (188 Responses)
  1. Ben

    Experience 2 mins inner silence- simple experiment if you don't mind it: Put you hand on you heart and ask, and say Oh God Almighty give me complete satisfaction in my heart joy in my heart bliss in my heart so that the whole world become blissful. Give me love so that I can love the whole world and the whole world become one in love. Give salvation to entire humanity which is suffering. Give me self-realisation. Close your eyes .Keep silence for 2 mins and after 2 min see that you will feel cool breeze in you hands and deep silence in your heart.

    January 10, 2014 at 6:37 am |
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  3. Donna Mitchell-Moniak

    Reblogged this on The Practice of Living Awareness.

    September 16, 2012 at 10:23 pm |
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  5. Rezvan Ameli

    I understand the $$ estimates are inaccurate. I gave a talk and used your numbers and someone from NCCAM indicated that the numbers were total NCCAM $$ 128 M. NCI on CAM reserach 130M and Total NIMH 540.

    May 17, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
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    April 17, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  8. Islamic Meditation

    An interesting discussion is worth comment. I do think that you need to publish more on this issue, it might not be a taboo subject but usually folks don't speak about these topics. To the next! Cheers!!

    April 16, 2012 at 3:24 am |
  9. Islamic Meditation

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    April 16, 2012 at 2:53 am |
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    December 19, 2011 at 8:34 pm |
  11. TL

    If one is to dispute or support a practice, shouldn't one first understand what the practice is? Several posts comment on the support and dispute of what meditation is in Buddhist context and even further argue the spiritual side of this school of thought. There has been very few posts that have actually shown an understanding of the culture in which Buddhism began, formed, & adapted. There have been few discussions on how Buddhism and meditation have expanded and blended with other philosophies under various influences. Is it equitable to dismiss an idea or support one without complete understanding of all of the world's viewpoint. No one has mentioned Confucius, or the Dao, or the many layers of Buddhism with the exception of the mention of "the enlightenment being." Nirvana in one layer of Buddhism means the opposite of Nirvana in another layer of Buddhism. I imagine that for those who have not read the many viewpoints of the Western World you may be surprised to find you may actually share in some of their principles, virtues, or thought processes without complete agreement with their entire school of thought. People have judged others for posting statistics stating that the topic isn't so black and white it actually has shades of gray. In truth the topic does have shades of gray but the statistics provided are given in black and white so individuals can make their own interpretation without influence and we the individuals are the ones who provide shades of gray with our perceptions and perspectives. Ideas are often challenged and rejected as wrong and later proven to be true. Even Buddha's disciples left him when he changed his path to enlightenment. They eventually came back as his disciples but his ideas were rejected just like the ideas presented in these posts. The statistics are merely sets of data measured in a specific context and at least the person who posted them had the respect to allow us to make our own interpretation rather than inserting his own opinion which is what Buddha actually wanted people to do... not just accept things on blind faith but interpret for themselves and experience for themselves. I, however, do not have the same respect as the statistics poster and prefer to insert my opinion. I believe there is time and place for both experience on the individual level and blind faith in that which you cannot understand. May you all find a way to come together in some shape or form. May you look beyond the surface of things and people to find the deeper layers to find your connection in a way that you understand.

    October 24, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
  12. Ryan

    Maybe meditating will serve you better than your pseudo intellect.

    July 13, 2011 at 5:03 am |
  13. jaime

    Soundoff: Seriously, this has nothing to do with religion, why would you post that? never mind please don't answer that.

    June 14, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • jaime

      whoops that was directed at desert voice

      June 14, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • Ryan

      You can copy and paste. You deserve a pulitzer

      July 13, 2011 at 5:06 am |
  14. desert voice (troubledgoodangel or Nathanael)

    Yes, a meaningful meditation can change your brain. With this in mind, I am sending you some thoughts of John Paul II on Cross and Suffering, to meditate upon: "Nella passione di Cristo l'umana sofferenza ha raggiunto il suo culmine. Contemporaneamente 'essa è intrata In una dimensione completamente nuova e in un nuovo ordine: è stata legata all’amore.’ Prendendolo su di sé, il Crocefisso ha aperto per tutto il dolore del mondo la prospettiva della vera speranza. La croce resta così trasformata: diventa strumento di salvezza. Qui si rivela l’autentica onnipotenza di Dio: non un’onnipotenza ‘miracolosa’ e folgorante, bensì quella della croce, un’onnipotenza crocifissa, che dalla morte fa scaturire la vita” (Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, v. XVI(2), p. 1,501, Al personale sanitario del Policlinico Umberto I, 19 December 1993). Dopo, il 24 agosto di 1997, il Papa aggiunge: “”Nous prechons le Christ crucifié et nous proclamons qu’il est Puissance et Sagesse, plenitude de la Vérité. Il est vrai qu’en nous la confiance connaît des hauts et des bas. Il est vrai que notre regard de foi est souvent obscurci par le doute et par notre proper faiblesse. Mais le Christ nous adresse un appel: venez et vous verrez, dans la Croix vous verrez le signe lumineux de la redemption du monde, la presence aimante du Dieu vivant. Parce qu’il ont saisi que le Croix domine l’histoire, les chrétiens ont place le crucifix dans les églises et au bord des chemins, ou ils le portent sur leur cœur. Car la Croix est un signe veritable de la presence du Fils de Dieu; par ce signe se révèle le Rédempteur du monde. In hoc signo vinces” (Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, v. XX(2), pp. 204-205, Parigi: L’omelia per la XII Giornata Mondiale della Gioventù all’Ippodromo di Long Champ, 24 agosto, 1997)

    November 7, 2010 at 9:09 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.