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. Jimmy Goodman

    Really interesting. I'm surprised the article didn't mention the research on Transcendental Meditation. The NIH has awarded over $26 million in research grants for TM alone, and more brain research has been done on TM than any other practice.

    More significant than increased "activity" of the prefrontal cortex or stimulating the limbic area may be the definitive changes in how the brain reorganizes its neural networks in meditators - changes in the way the brain processes and structures information - as seen from 40 years of brain research on TM.

    'Transcending' in meditation is the process of mental activity subsiding and consciousness itself becoming primary, as during TM or any practice designed to 'transcend its own mental activity.' The category of meditation practice that induces this specific neurophysiological response is called 'automatic self-transcending' and is distinct from controlled focus techniques (such as Tibetan Buddhist 'compassion' meditation) and open monitoring (mindfulness type practices).

    Each of the three main categories of practices has its own brain pattern: controlled focus = gamma; open monitoring = theta; automatic self-transcending = frontal alpha coherence. Studies in the recent issue of the neuroscience journal "Cognitive Processing" cover all this beautifully. The three categories are identified by the type of cognitive processing going on and the corresponding EEG pattern.

    During automatic self-transcending, the mind goes beyond the mental activity of meditation, to experience "pure consciousness" - a proposed fourth major state of consciousness (unlike waking, dreaming or sleep) with its own neurophysiological characteristics. The word 'transcending' here refers not just to "feelings of transcendence," but to the experience of this fourth state of consciousness, in which the meditator has gone beyond all mental activity, yet inner wakefulness is maintained.

    About 25 peer-reviewed studies have shown that the brain's executive control center, the prefrontal cortext, becomes coherent and better integrated with the rest of the brain during and after TM practice. This heightened, long-range coherence is seen not only during meditation, but also increases outside of meditation and the coherence grows over the years as a person continues practicing TM.

    Everything good about the brain depends on its coherent, orderly functioning. Researchers have found that the EEG coherence seen in TM meditators correlates with improved mental performance in daily life, as measured by their improvements on IQ tests, increased creativity, faster reaction time, improve moral reasoning, decreased neuroticism, and improvements in health. (All these studies can be found on PubMed.)

    October 27, 2010 at 1:45 pm |
    • tammy

      i agree, the studies showing EEG coherence during meditation are the most important.

      the concept of brain wave coherence was not well understood when it was first discovered in research on TM in the 1970s, but it is regaining major importance due mostly to findings associating specific EEG patterns with pathologies. with Alzheimer's and dementia, EEG coherence breaks down. and in high performing athletes and CEOs, researchers (in non-TM related studies) have found higher EEG coherence than controls. the new paradigm of neuroscience is much more amenable to the TM research because now we are beginning to understand the importance of coherence and its relation to mental performance. this is probably the future of neuroscience.

      it only makes sense that when you transcend and experience the field of perfect order deep within the mind, your brain would also become orderly and coherent.

      October 27, 2010 at 2:00 pm |
  2. Charmaine

    It shouldn't surprise anyone that practicing meditation will increase your ability to focus because you are basically retraining your brain when you practice meditation. One of the side benefits of meditation is that you can experience deep insights and ideas. You may experience a profound sense of connectedness to the universe and all living things. Perhaps this might be what is referred to as a feeling of transcendence. You may also experience the recollection of suppressed memories which for some might be an emotional yet cathartic experience as your brain can process and release those memories and emotions. This is why meditation is ideal as therapy for those with PTSD, anxiety and strss related disorders. Meditating upon nature can be one of the best methods to aid in emotional and physical healing since when your brain is deeply relaxed studies have shown it can boost your immune system. Which may indicate meditation might be a viable treatment tool for those with immune deficiencies or perhaps even AIDS.

    If you would like to try meditating upon nature for yourself, visit the Serenity Moments Web.site and view a beautiful scenic relaxation video at http://www.serenitymoments.com


    October 27, 2010 at 12:56 pm |
  3. Robert

    I meditate, and it allows me to rose above confusion. I usually find that the ongoing practise of meditation brings me to a more objective state. I am less swayed by preconceived notions.

    I am a psychologist, and I spend my professional time helping people. The fusion of helping others with meditation is a great thing. Meditation helps me be more effective and happy in my daily work as well as in my moments of meditative happiness.

    I am less worried about science being peer-reviewed than I am with improving my life, and thereby helping others cope with their lives.

    October 27, 2010 at 12:04 pm |
  4. JKING

    I am surprised and perplexed by the number of caustic, vitriolic comments on this article. Seems out of proportion to the content. At any rate I wanted to mention, as a few others already have, that there are many forms of meditation, just as there are many forms of exercise, prayer, dancing, and just about anything else you can think of. Contrary to what many seem to believe, the goal of the most common form of Buddhist meditation ("attention practice") isn't to empty the mind completely or to rigidly concentrate on one thing. Rather, it is to develop the ability to "pay attention", become aware of thoughts as they naturally arise in the mind, be able to identify them as thoughts, and then gently let them go. It isn't a matter of forcing the mind to do anything, it's about learning how to be more aware in a very nuanced way. Most of us have an incessant flood of subconscious chatter going on at all times, our mind lays multiple stories on top of what is actually going on around us, and we aren't even aware of it. One of interesting effects of a meditation practice is that simply learning to be aware of that chatter and mental overhead diminishes it.

    I loved the way Pema Chodron puts it::
    Meditation isn't really about getting rid of thoughts, it's about changing the pattern of grasping on to things, which in our everyday experience is our thoughts.

    The thoughts are fine if they are seen as transparent, but we get so caught up judging thoughts as right or wrong, for and against, yes and no, needing it to be this way and not that way. And even that might be okay except that is accompanied by strong, strong emotions. So we just start ballooning out more and more. With this grasping onto thoughts we just get more caught, more and more hooked. All of us. Every single one of us.

    October 27, 2010 at 10:33 am |
    • TygerTyger

      Amen, JKING! That's a great quote, thanks for posting it. Indeed, grasping onto thoughts creates a vicious cycle, then we find ourselves trying to think our way out of it, looking for good thoughts to make it all better. It's like trying to use muddy hands to wipe mud off your shirt.

      October 27, 2010 at 11:56 am |
  5. Dr.Dr.

    The Idea is to get rid of our continuous mental noise to a state
    of quiet and being in the moment ,most fear and and non creative thought stems from
    our mental noise. Many Americans are hesitant to do anything "foreign" such as
    meditation,which is very different than prayer. Prayer is based upon that we are sinners
    and mortal from birth on, as in the Church of Rome ,so we are always praying for
    forgiveness for being born with original sin, How did that story catch on with so
    The same church of Rome would not approve of Buddhist Philosophy(not a Religion) including "detachment"
    from one's own state of "mental noise" they like the idea of sin which makes one feel guilty 4 ever even
    though one may be a very good and loving contributing member of society.

    October 27, 2010 at 9:30 am |
  6. Canucklehead

    Yes, It does work! I attended a 10 week program here in Toronto Canada which also included CBT because I suffer from anxiety and depression. I have noticed big positive changes. Don't expect major results right away though. It takes a bit of time to undo the pattern of thinking we have become accustomed to for many years of living in our western society.

    October 27, 2010 at 8:55 am |
  7. MDwebpro

    Meditation is definitely where it's at. Done properly and practiced daily, it improves every aspect of one's everyday life. I've been sitting meditation daily for the past three years and the improvements in my focus, clarity, organizational skills and interpersonal behavior have been truly amazing. IMHO, meditation will become as much an important part of the 21st century as traditional religious prayer was to the 19th and 20th centuries.

    October 27, 2010 at 8:29 am |
  8. YVP

    I wonder if the brain scans are the same on nuns because they pray the rosary.

    October 27, 2010 at 8:24 am |
  9. ajish

    Yes, you are right. Meditation refreezes ones emotion and you become light. This lightness makes the person float in the air. If we can achieve this state over a period of time, the attention span can be increased. Excellent article and finding.

    More and more brain research supports the idea that our brain functioning can improve no matter our age, with the adoption of appropriate lifestyle and tools, and that doing so can help build our cognitive reserves and protect our brains against decline and even Alzheimer´s symptoms. I recommend checking out sharpbrains.com for a lot of good stuff on lifelong cognitive health and brain fitness, including this nice checklist to evaluate "brain training" products and claims: http://www.sharpbrains.com/resources/10-question-evaluation-checklist/


    October 27, 2010 at 7:44 am |
  10. NOT Sum Dude

    I smell a troll....

    October 27, 2010 at 7:24 am |
    • Sum Dude

      @NOT Sum Dude

      You smell a troll? I am a troll and do not recall ever denying it. I checked my posts. All the ones with my name are mine.
      Or are you surprised that I am a troll? LOL

      Explain yourself or STFU.

      October 28, 2010 at 5:00 am |
  11. thomas

    Of course meditation can change the brain, so can sleep (or lack of), and so can studying or excercise.

    October 27, 2010 at 7:16 am |
  12. totscarmelo


    God is not a poor provider. He's given man fertile lands, huge body of fresh water and abundant seas. If only we follow Jesus' command to love one another, to treat each other like real brothers then no child will starve while his mother looks on........

    October 27, 2010 at 6:18 am |
  13. mind your mind

    Human beings are in our infancy with regard to understanding and evolving consciousness. Five hundred years from now, fortune permitting, we'll be just beginning to understand the true depths of the mind and the energetic nature of the universe as a whole. The real questions aren't whether meditation contributes to mental facility and emotional quality, but what mechanisms will be most effective and most practicable. The greatest impediment to such efforts is the arrogance of some scientists who demand indisputable data. Very little science has ever been indisputable. Science should complement the dreamers, not obstruct them.

    October 27, 2010 at 5:39 am |
    • Sum Dude

      @mind your mind

      It is not arrogance to insist upon good data. It is proper to insist. No arrogance is, or should be, part of insisting on good data.
      But if you equate the demand for good data with arrogance because you don't like anyone demanding what you don't have, then you are a sad example of what scientists have to put up with as they try to expand our knowledge.

      And there has been many a fraudulent scientific claim by those who like to "fudge" things a bit to get the results they want.
      That's why the scientific world has peer-review and strict guidelines on data and proofs and things of that nature.
      By complaining about "indisputable data", you only show yourself to be impatient at best, and potentially fraudulent at worst.
      We need solid data to build upon.
      Would you have years of work tossed out the window setting us back decades because people like you didn't want to go to all the trouble of doing things right in the first place????
      Dreamers need to dream, not obstruct the scientists. They shouldn't insist on things that cannot work, either.

      Or would you prefer to change all the science textbooks like they tried to do in Texass?

      October 27, 2010 at 6:13 am |
    • Bob

      You both make good points. I agree that what gets presented to the public as a solution to our problems should be vetted scientifically. Throughout history there have been a variety of so called cures that actually did the killing. One big problem, however, is that scientists are rarely advocates for what they discover. For example, the efficacy of fish oil to solve a variety of problems has been known for years, yet only recently has there been any press about it. Also, the problems with trans fats were known over 40 years ago yet only recently has there been any move to ban it. This issue stems from two characteristics of scientists: they get bored with previous discoveries and second they are usually not very good at interacting with non-scientific individuals. When someone tries to bridge the gap by putting things in lay terms they get slammed by the scientists for not being precise enough to please the scientists. Then the public reads these disparaging remarks by the scientists resulting in distrust for the messenger trying to bridge the gap. What needs to happen is that scientists need to relax a little bit and realize that the greater public will never be scientists and the message they receive needs to be taylored for the maximum benefit to the public given the extent of what is known today. There are times that expediency is important.

      mind your mind makes a great point in that science should compliment the dreamers. We should all be looking forward to how we can make the world a better place and how we can use science to accomplish those goals. However, please realize that the secrets of the mind are not that far away. The basics are known today. For example, we know that free will in the sense that most people understand it is impossible. We make choices but the choices are always constrained by our past experience. So you don't have free will, you have constrained will, at best. Any choice that is different from the expected choice (assuming infinite knowledge of what the expected choice is) is purely random. That is, you have no agency – you have no free will. Also, mind your mind, you need to question these energy theories of behavior – they are false. Your mind is physical – all thought must be consistent with the laws of nature. That is, if you have a thought it is because of physical (chemical and electrical) reactions – period. There is no soul making your decisions or some little person pulling the strings.

      October 27, 2010 at 6:54 am |
  14. tenzin

    It is not a rock hard to prove that meditation works for better life and happier life. Just spend 5 miinutes every day to think a good thing happened to you over and over for the next three days. Then monitor your thoughts on the fourth and fifth day without meditating on this. You will notice that the mind naturally pops up with the good feeling now and again during the day and making you feel happy and warm in the heart. When you get that feeling, you tend to respond friendly to people around you.

    Try it and see yourself. If this works for you then you don't need to have a harvard grads tell you so.


    October 27, 2010 at 5:10 am |
    • mind your mind

      Thanks, Tenzin, for saying it better than me!

      October 27, 2010 at 5:42 am |
  15. Ed in Cali

    For those who think meditation is just Buddhist - Desert Fathers, anyone? (Christians). Much of their prayer and meditation focused on an analogously similar kind of freedom from passions (exaggerated emotions), fears, etc. Prior to them, some Jews also practiced a kind of meditation. They both would call it prayer, but the idea is very similar.

    October 27, 2010 at 4:57 am |
  16. Bob

    Khaneman showed long ago that fear makes us irrational. The focus on positive thoughts or a neutral clearing of the mind should allow a person to be less fearful and more rational. Practicing meditation allows the positive or neutral state to be achieved more quickly and with less effort. This is because the practice changes the brain to make the brain more efficient at achieving the desired state. Because those more experienced at meditation can achieve these states more readily they will be more rational for a greater part of the day. Meditation is not about resting the brain – it is about removing negativity. When a person is feeling negative certain areas of the frontal lobes become less active and the individual is less able to focus on what needs to be done. The earlier poster who said that fear of the future is needed to keep on from being homeless is wrong. In fact, the greater the amount of fear someone has the more likely they are to become homeless. (I said "likely" – please don't give me an outlier example of your brother in-law who tried to copy the naked cowboy and is now not only naked but homeless.

    October 27, 2010 at 4:40 am |
  17. Frank

    A whole sh!tload of things can rewire the brain. OLD NEWS.

    October 27, 2010 at 4:31 am |
  18. Charlie

    Meditation is a Hindu thing. Christians should not do it.

    October 27, 2010 at 4:19 am |
    • Frank

      Christians have forms of meditation. Ever heard of the Rosary? You can meditate on Biblical passages, as well.

      October 27, 2010 at 5:04 am |
  19. Isabel

    Meditation can take you from clnical depression to a being a functional human again (meds free) to being a stress free person to being a HAPPY person. FACT. I know this because this has been my case. No praying, no visualising dieties, no belief in higher supreme beings or spirit, or even a god. None of that is needed. Just pure focus of attention on the breathing, feelings of love and compassion, or focus on body sensations. Just that. No belief, no relegion needed.

    October 27, 2010 at 4:04 am |
    • Sum Dude


      And how much of your world did you have to ignore, discard, oppose, or otherwise negate in order to keep from relapsing?
      The ideal conditions rarely exist for sustainable efforts, I would assume, so how do you overcome the harsh realities?

      October 27, 2010 at 5:59 am |
  20. Epidi

    I used meditaion techniques whlie giving birth to both of my children – completely drug free. The relaxation helped the birth process move along as quickly and painlessly as possible. I'm not saying there was no pain – but it was very managable as long as I kept the breathing rythyms and mind set to where it needed to be.

    October 27, 2010 at 3:22 am |
    • Charisse

      Same here. So much so that I became certified to teach natural childbirth so I could personally pass along these valuable skills. -Peace

      October 27, 2010 at 3:51 am |
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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.