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. MK-DoubleStuf

    For decades the USA government has known of the existence of certain psychic abilities. The CIA decided to keep these abilities for their own use in Mind Control programs. Psychics in USA are not free and are subject to torture and physical mutilation for purposes of punishment. We have no access to legal services or lawyers.

    The CIA is targeting American citizens with mind control, these attacks occur outside of the law and our rights are never respected.

    October 27, 2010 at 3:03 am |
  2. Peace2All

    I love the practice and experiences of meditation. It's 'all' good..!


    October 27, 2010 at 3:02 am |
    • Sum Dude


      Hey, man, feel the peace! 😀
      I've been having fun poking holes in the puffed up "gurus". Are you a guru? lol

      Nah, I can respect your efforts to seek peace, but I gave that stuff up years ago.
      Self-hypnosis has its uses, but I prefer strength of will and focusing my concentration.
      Not very peaceful or meditative, contemplative, yes, but I have things to think about.

      Places to go, people to see, things to do. Once you get your center properly oomphed, you shouldn't need to sit on your ass anymore. Not that a peaceful vacation wouldn't hurt me, but there is no peace for me in this world.
      Unless I'm asleep. 😀

      October 27, 2010 at 5:54 am |
    • Peace2All

      @Sum Dude

      Hey Bro...

      Yes... why, of course "i'm a guru"...!!!

      I see that we need to talk or get together, as I am thinking you need a 'hug' or something. 🙂

      October 27, 2010 at 8:31 pm |
    • Sum Dude

      Okay, okay...no one to see, nowhere to go, nothing to do...is what I should have said. There. Happy?
      My lack is secular, yes, but requires resources I do not have. You are insightful, as well, I see. I am well served out for my previous attacks upon thee, sirrah! Nothing so arcane as a hug is needed, yet I was disturbed in my intellects, yes.

      Good eye, guru-man. Fundies like you are rare.

      October 28, 2010 at 4:55 am |
  3. littledebbieoatmealcookie

    this gives a bit of insight into how meditation works, for those who are interested: http://littledebbieoatmealcookie.wordpress.com/explosion/

    October 27, 2010 at 2:43 am |
  4. 808mbp

    This shouldn't be under a belief blog, Buddhism is NOT a religion! Meditation works on everyone, its not a belief! Its like yoga, a practice that has physical and mental effects. People need to stop saying its a religion, its a philosophy, not gods and mumbo jumbo....

    October 27, 2010 at 2:21 am |
    • Ed in Cali

      Some Buddhists do invoke various "otherworldly" beings, i.e., buddhas and bodhisatvas. Many also do make offerings - but offerings to whom? To say it is just a philosophy is a little disingenuous.

      October 27, 2010 at 4:46 am |
    • Frank

      Buddhism is most certainly a religion. They have a comprehensive view of life and the afterlife. Meditation is supposed to result in spiritual enlightenment and 'oneness' with the universe. Those are religious beliefs.
      It began as a sect of Hinduism, obviously.

      October 27, 2010 at 4:50 am |
  5. Leon

    ugh, great article on meditation, was about to share this, but it was F'n posted on the ridiculous belief blog? Come on CNN stop perpetrating modern myths.

    October 27, 2010 at 1:56 am |
    • 808mbp

      I know! Even in this day and age the christians ect. think Buddhism and meditation is some sort of witchcraft and even CNN files it under faith, well it has nothing to do with that!

      October 27, 2010 at 2:22 am |
  6. simple person

    Science has yet to separate the physiological from the psychological in the human body. Given the fact that we are all different make up, any stimulation (or lack of) to either physio or psycho can have different effects on every single individual on the planet.

    Nothing anyone who supports the premise or idea of this article is wrong. Those opposing it, however, are mostly likely wrong.

    My approach to meditation isn't spiritual, but rather practical and intuitively physiological. It's about resting the brain. Consider the work the brain does in the course of a 5 minute period during non-sleep time. Now think about another 5 minutes, another 5 minutes, and on and on. Your brain is working consciously and unconsciously controlling even the most minute twitch. It manages millions if not billions of commands over the course of your non-sleep time.

    My thinking is there are two big buckets to classify the brains work – thought and senses. Thinking (stressing, anxiety, contemplating, interpreting, etc.) are the internal. Senses (see, touch, taste, hear, smell) are the external if you will.

    The point for meditation for me is to rest the sensory work the brain does and minimize all the areas of the thinking – I think of it as a place of awake sleeping.

    When the brain is at rest in sleep mode, the senses are shut down...just thought remains – think about that for a minute. When you are sleeping are you consciously aware of a taste in your mouth or what the sheet feels like against your body? Same in mediation – your brains work is cut down... not completely, but significantly.

    As for positive thinking in meditation... my opinion would be that most people will gravitate toward happier, positive thoughts. Why would anyone want to carry bad thoughts into their resting time? Doesn't make sense for normal people. Bad people (serial killers, etc.) probably don't meditate.

    Being spiritual with your mediation, for me, would be (metaphorically speaking) like covering yourself with light blanket when meditating. It's a simple layer that some people prefer to use in parallel with the Thinking bucket. In theory, it can't be a bad thing to bring something positive in with you while meditating. Anyone else meditating without the spiritual, I would say, is simply giving the brain a break.

    Sorry for slightly scattered point building... I'm not the most articulate writer, but I hope you get my point.

    October 27, 2010 at 1:28 am |
    • TygerTyger

      Sure, it's intuitive. People naturally gravitate towards various types of meditation, such as hobbies and sports. For example, skiing down a mountain slope forces you to rest your brain from its usual activity, because if you don't you might crash. Same with sewing or restoring old cars –such activities bring you out of your little brain somewhat, away from the "inside" more towards the "outside", and when we are smack in the middle, where inside and outside start to become one, then we're enjoying that activity to its fullest. Sitting meditation, such as zazen, is a natural extension of such activities and can further break down that barrier between inside and outside.

      October 27, 2010 at 9:20 am |
  7. ISL

    I do not believe that meditation is even closely related to religion as many have commented. You can meditate and still not be religious or have a concrete religious belief. Religions have incorporated meditation within their systems in forms of prayers or chants.

    Meditation starts with sitting in silence, and slowly reaching that state of higher consciousness and awareness, while feeling ultimate bliss. It is all about being one with yourself and sitting in silence and just being open and aware. Finding that inner silence is important as nowadays there are so many distractions all around us that influences our ways of being.

    What science has discovered about meditation, I believe, are the benefits meditation brings such as developing the brain and increasing its usage capacity. Science has backed up meditation for those who simply don't appreciate the silence of the self, and refuse to believe that it is actually possible.

    October 27, 2010 at 1:19 am |
  8. Joe the Plumber

    NOTICE: Not applicable to Tea Party members. Their brain is already, and forever, disconnected.

    October 27, 2010 at 12:55 am |
  9. Jordan

    I meditate almost everyday to some good music. It always helps since I take AP Euro and the course is so damn hard.

    October 27, 2010 at 12:45 am |
  10. Cat MacLeod

    Why is this in the "Belief" section. This article isn't about belief it's about growing empirical evidence that appears to support a theory.

    October 27, 2010 at 12:32 am |
    • Bikerdude

      Probably because they confuse Buddhism as a religion instead of a way of life...

      October 27, 2010 at 11:08 am |
  11. CalgarySandy

    Fundies do not meditate. They just irritate. Sorry. I was raised in a seriously right wing Baptist church and was told that meditating would open the spirit to demons. My mother ranted about this every time my meditating came up for years. Meditation is more part of RC and Anglican churches than it is of Protestants. TM claimed all of this in the 60's to the disgust of Indians. My issue with them and why I walked was that they harped on how it would bring you money. I wanted balance and focus and they kept flogging how it could make your rich.

    I don't think it matters how old the discipline is. Buddhism is an offshoot of Hinduism so it is younger if you want to look at it that way. The issue is: Does it work to make this life easier or more balanced. These are paths for living not for getting you into heaven in a future life.

    October 27, 2010 at 12:29 am |
  12. Michael

    Amazing how in 2010 the news feels the need to dumb down the most basic of psychological principles so that its audience can understand it. Thinking about work and goals leads to what. Thinking about despair and problems leads to what. Thinking about happy experiences leads to what. The brain can be coerced and trained? No surely it cannot. Go back to living in your box.

    October 27, 2010 at 12:22 am |
  13. SoundGuy

    Beginner meditators will find it hard to calm the mind and remain focused and awake for long periods of time. For this reason I recommend taking advantage of the great resources found here: http://www.transcendentaltones.com
    Look for the free guided meditations (English and Spanish!)

    October 27, 2010 at 12:09 am |
  14. Fariba

    Prayer is when we "speak", and meditation is when we "listen". From childhood, we have been taught well how to "speak", but not how to "listen"...

    October 27, 2010 at 12:09 am |
    • Jayanthi Vittal

      Well said Fariba. You compared meditation and prayer in a correct way !.

      October 27, 2010 at 9:19 am |
    • Listening

      I have often prayed then listened, but I'm not sure of what I seem to be 'hearing' in reply. How does one do this ?

      October 27, 2010 at 11:28 am |
    • TygerTyger

      You probably just need to “listen” more intently. Don’t let the small, judgmental mind pipe in and limit what you hear to those old, familiar patterns. Proper meditation technique is not so hard to learn, but it takes some tenacity get the mind out of its old ruts and fill in those ruts so you don’t get trapped again.

      October 27, 2010 at 2:23 pm |
    • Sum Dude


      Judge the words. TygerTyger is trying to sound lofty and arrogant as if he is a super-guru with all the answers.
      would you listen to this snob? I wouldn't. I know a con-artist when I see the words written out often enough.

      Some prayers can work after a fashion. But words must be tested. If you do not require words, you might not worry so much.
      Just be as good as you can. If God knows all, there should be no reason to pray in the first place. Trust in what you know.

      October 28, 2010 at 4:44 am |
  15. Vsaxena

    You know what's crazy? I just started thinking about meditation last night. I've been considering starting it. And now an article appears about it. That's kind of weird. But anyway. I've never done it because it makes me uncomfortable. Just the idea of doing it makes me feel embarrassed. I'm clearly overly self conscious, but perhaps meditation could fix that? You never know...

    October 27, 2010 at 12:07 am |
    • TygerTyger

      If you dive in wholeheartedly and get a taste of what meditation is about, yes, your self-consciousness about it will disappear, along with a lot of other crap! Don't get frustrated if you try it for awhile and "nothing happens". You may need to sit for longer and more often than you think to get a glimpse of the big picture. Maybe you can find a group to practice with. A little peer pressure can help with the self-discipline that's required to get things going.

      October 27, 2010 at 12:50 am |
    • 808mbp

      Yes it is very hard, sitting at rest with your own mind is very difficult. People don't realize what its like because they never stop the bombardment of information like tweeting and tv ect... In Zen many people start sitting in front of a wall, it helps to not think of anything, you will get bored and sleepy, proper posture ect. will help. For Americans who need a good accessible perspective there is always Brad Warner, he was a punk rocker who became a Zen master and he has great advice and tells it like it is, great book, Sit Down and Shut Up By Brad Warner

      October 27, 2010 at 2:32 am |
    • Charisse

      My favorite way to get started is to sit comfortably with good posture outside (in a private location), look around and become aware of all of the details I usually overlook (colors, objects, animals, movement of things, etc.), I become aware of the sounds I usually tune out (birds, insects, machines, wind, etc.), I become aware of the smells in the air, I close my eyes and become aware of what the environment feels like to my body (the air on my skin and hair, the surface I am sitting on, the warmth of the sun, etc), I become aware of my body and how it feels (maybe stretch a little and/or change position), I become aware of my breath, and my hearbeat. By that time I am so happy to be quiet right where I am. I enjoy being with myself and my life sustaining breath and heartbeat. I sit for as long as I feel like sitting (it's different each time). I always open my eyes feeling fresh and peaceful as I continue my awareness and deep appreciation for the beauty the Earth provides. I hope that helps. Believe it or not, the hardest part is actually sitting down : )

      October 27, 2010 at 3:42 am |
  16. Densha

    I fully support Andy Morgan that yoga is basically originated meditation. Buddhism which effectively used meditation as major mind training tool for improving their monks to memorize 20-50 volumes of big sutras for 2500 years but yoga has been developing for more than 4000 years alongside with meditation practices.

    October 27, 2010 at 12:03 am |
  17. Andy Morgan

    (Follow-up from my original message....) I forgot to mention something about Transmission Meditation which applies to this topic of "can it change your brain?". Indeed, it can. It's a powerful form of Laya Yoga (yoga of energies) and Karma Yoga (yoga of service). The energies run through one's "etheric" vehicles, including the highest 4 (of 7) major chakra centers which distribute and regulate much of our outer, physical organ's functions. The idea of an "etheric" sheath around our body – a subtler, finer, plane of matter – is fast shifting from fringe theory to serious breakthrough. Read the very last paragraph of none less than Sir Isaac Newton's famous "Principia". He knew. And there are many high level researchers world wide today who are looking into something beyond the gaseous state, experimenting with advanced and/or alternative methods of healing. It's a major discovery which awaits our modern-day scientists, though the Eastern philosophers have known about it for millennia.

    October 26, 2010 at 11:54 pm |
    • Sum Dude

      Don't let your karma hit you on the ass on your way out...!

      October 27, 2010 at 5:40 am |
  18. Andy Morgan

    Ultimately, meditation in the true sense of the term is as much scientific as it is "religious" or metaphysical. Meditation is ultimately not about concentration. Anyone can concentrate on something and become fixated, hypnotized, and even more delusional than they were before starting. When one conciously enters into a deeper, more aligned, connection with their soul a meditation of some sort is likely the method of contact.

    I've been involved in something called Transmission Meditation for about 7 years now. It's purely voluntary, no dues, no belief system involved. Simply a form of service to humanity, and a powerful one at that. It works with energies streaming into the planet, which must be stepped down in a scientific manner, and is then sent to the world where it can be absorbed by those who are of high enough caliber to use it. Similar to how a toaster would fry at 10,000 volts, humanity needs energies to be transformed, and brought to a useable leve. It changes you personally, too. I'd recommend for anyone looking for a way to serve at this time of great transformation around the world.

    October 26, 2010 at 11:44 pm |
    • Sum Dude


      October 27, 2010 at 5:39 am |
  19. happy2b

    Enjoying some peace and quiet does not need to be complicated by science. We are born fully capable of being peaceful and happy in each moment. Even a kid can do it. A nice guided meditation for kids of all ages using pebbles:


    October 26, 2010 at 11:38 pm |
    • Pushpa Divecha

      That was wonderful. The sound of the gong penetrates everything – forever.

      October 28, 2010 at 10:15 am |
  20. Densha

    But the meditation itself is not a whole story like someone possess huge nuclear power likely would never allow others to have similar power as themselves the similar "theories" exploded in mainstream mind training business. There is huge ethical obstacles needed to be crossed to achieve the realistic brain "miracles".

    October 26, 2010 at 11:22 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.