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)

    Meditation is surely recommended to everyone. First it simply means to relax and to be aware, to develop good habits and to avoid bad habits. Our 51 Visual Dharmas – spiritual Teachings for 3rd millennium are created in such a way to support meditation through positive and meaningful Visual and audial impressions that stimulate different parts of brain.. We support contemplative neuroscience research and interdisciplinary dialogue with collaboration. Thank you for writing about important topics of meditation.
    Buddha Dharma-OBF International
    buddhadharmaobfinternational.wordpress.com Heritage of Mankind

    November 6, 2010 at 1:30 pm |
  2. Компрессор

    Админ. Хотелось бы поговорить насчёт рекламы в вашем блоге. Если вы согласны, отпишите ваши условия на e-mail. Благодарю.

    November 3, 2010 at 4:29 am |
  3. Helen Canada


    November 2, 2010 at 12:32 pm |
  4. Helen Canada

    By meditation I found two serious ilness,one in 1986 and an other 2007,while doctors told me there was nothing wrong with me.I insist to check certain parts of my body and found 1986 breast cancer and brain tumor in 2007,if I had listened to doctors I would be long gone by now.

    November 2, 2010 at 12:25 pm |
  5. jcalpaca

    People, the word ETCETERA is expressed as "etc.," NOT ECT! It is just painful to see this spelled wrong!

    October 31, 2010 at 10:30 pm |
  6. Sam

    Hi Carlos,
    I dont need to answer your questions. If you believe you exists and actually reading my message that should be enough proof that God Exists because without that Great energy (Which we call God) there is no you or me or anything exists... We are all different impressions of the same Great Energy... I hope That answered your Questions.


    October 31, 2010 at 12:17 pm |
  7. Sam

    Take it easy people, no need to bash each other. We all have our opinions about what life should and should not be...
    God gave all of us a free will,, so let it be free...

    Any article or new Idea has one thing: Simple point of view... It will open some people hearts and it will be dismissed by others... Both sides are right...

    Our job as awaken humans is trying to show the way we know is the truth, some people will follow it because again it does speak to their hearts but may be the rest will not see it that way because they are still sleep....

    Eventually, Everyone will have to wake up and make a decision: do I want to go back to sleep or I will stay up and play another game now ???

    I stopped worrying about scientific discoveries for a while now because I do not need any science to tell me what I already know in my Heart to be the truth....

    Some people use meditation to open their mind and Heart others use Prayers... Who cares what you use as long as it works for you.... I personally Use meditation because It resonate with my Heart....

    October 31, 2010 at 1:27 am |
    • Carlos

      @Sam: There is no god, and there are no gods. Gods are a creation of mankind. Ergo: They cannot "give" us free will

      Let me try and wake you from your delusions by asking you to answer some questions:

      – Who or what created that god of yours?
      – Why do you think you need approval from gods for the things you are doing in life?
      – Why does your existence require the existence of a god?
      – Are you afraid to find out what actually happened when our solar-system and the universe were created?

      October 31, 2010 at 11:55 am |
  8. Betsy

    This is such a helpful trend, this trend toward meditation, especially Transmission Meditation. For the western mind, it increases ability to focus and the power to think through rather than respond emotionally to life's ups and downs. The result, I have found, is a high level of centeredness, resulting in increased creativity in expression. All of this must invite the question: who am I..really? Such a question is the first step into one's Self, don't you think?

    October 29, 2010 at 12:51 pm |
  9. carol

    http://www.centerpointe.com These people have been providing deep level meditation cd's where all one has to do to experience deep meditation similar to a zen monk at the flip of a switch is put headphones on and listen to the cd. i have been meditating with their cd's for 13 years. The researchers should contact these people for subjects to study...I can verify firsthand that meditation does indeed change ones life !!!

    October 28, 2010 at 7:14 pm |
    • TygerTyger

      Has that level of meditation been tested by someone following a Zen monk's schedule in a monastic setting?

      October 28, 2010 at 8:39 pm |
  10. Bob

    As a cynical, non religious person, I tried meditation as a way to relax some time ago. Amazingly, as I've gone deeper in meditation each day, I've found a new way of viewing the world and my life. It's really wonderful, you should give it a try. I simply see things more clearly without getting so involved in the "drama" of each little twist of the mind.

    October 28, 2010 at 5:24 pm |
  11. Catherine Warrington

    Here's some simple tips on bringing meditation into the nooks and crannies of even the busiest schedule: http://bit.ly/cy3AL8

    October 28, 2010 at 1:06 pm |
  12. SoundGuy

    Here's a free guided meditation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LD8D3_0Vk9o

    October 28, 2010 at 12:03 pm |
  13. Tanya

    If nothing else, the meditation process itself gives the feeling of euphoria and well-being.

    October 28, 2010 at 10:36 am |
  14. Martin Kenealy

    Can certain types of meditation be harmful? – Has anyone else experienced this?

    I used to do Zazen meditation for about five years. For the last 10 years or so I have been doing a different type of meditation that is more a form of surrender or openness than mindfulness and involves all of the chakras rather than just the hara.

    My concern is that I might do damage to my brain. I say this because when I meditate I feel like my head might explode. In fact, I feel like both my head and my heart might explode. I continue, however, because it feels so good. I say "explode" but it's more like my head isn't there and the radiance that replaces it is exploding.

    October 28, 2010 at 8:46 am |
    • Bob

      It's funny you posted this, because I've had a similar experience. I became scared and felt my head about to explode after meditation for some time. I worked through it and one day, just relaxing, it did "explode"-in an indescribable and amazing way. It's sort of like everything became more clear and expansive at once.

      October 28, 2010 at 5:33 pm |
    • TygerTyger

      Cool, like walking in your own brain?

      October 28, 2010 at 5:57 pm |
  15. Muneef

    What is this MLM but as to this above I got it by mail from a friend and hope it is ok.

    October 28, 2010 at 6:34 am |
  16. Muneef

    Subject: FW: Miracle drink

    This MIRACLE DRINK has been circulating for a long time long long ago.  It is worth your while to take note.  There is a celebrity Mr. Seto who swears by it.  He wants to make it public to draw the attention of people who have cancers.  This is a drink that can protect bad cells forming in your body or it will restrain its growth!  Mr. Seto had lung cancer.  He was recommanded to take this drink by a famous Herbalist from China .  He has taken this drink diligently for 3 months and now his health is restored, and he is ready to take a pleasure trip.  Thanks to this drink!  It does not hurt for you to try.  
    It is like a Miracle Drink!  It is simple. 
    You need one potato, one carrot and one apple that combine together to make the JUICE !
    Wash the above,cut with the skin on into pieces and put them into the juicer and immediately you drink the juice.  You can add some lime or lemon for more refreshing taste.
    This Miracle Drink will be effective for the following ailments:
    1.  Prevent cancer cells to develop. It will restrain cancer cells to grow.
    2.  Prevent liver, kidney, pancreas decease and it can cure ulcer as well.
    3.  Strengthen the lung, prevent heart attack and high blood pressure.
    4.  Strengthen the immune system
    5.  Good for the eyesight, eliminate red and tired eyes or dry eyes
    6.  Help to eliminate pain from physical training, muscle ache
    7.  Detoxify, assist bowel movement, eliminate constipation.  Therefore it will make skin healthy & LOOK more radiant. It is God sent for acne problem.
    8.  Improve bad breath due to indigestion, throat infection, 
    9.  Lessen menstrual pain
    10. Assist Hay Fever Sufferer from Hay Fever attack.
    There is absolutely no side effect.  Highly nutritious and easily absorbs!  Very effective if you need to loose weight. You will notice your immune system will be improved after 2 week routine. Please make sure to drink immediately from the juicer for best effect.

    October 27, 2010 at 10:08 pm |
    • Peace2All


      Hey there..!!

      I see MLM(Multi-Level Marketing) has arrived in your country...eh...? 🙂

      Hope that you are well...


      October 28, 2010 at 3:45 am |
    • Sum Dude


      I think you just got trolled...

      October 28, 2010 at 7:09 am |
    • TygerTyger

      SumDude, yer a trailer hitch on the cab of life, my friend...

      October 28, 2010 at 10:24 am |
  17. Paul

    What scientists still haven't taken into account is the affect meditation practices have over the unseen (ie: your spiritual energy field).

    October 27, 2010 at 7:18 pm |
  18. stefan

    the word meditation is not enough in english ; meditation properly understood means TRANSCENDENTAL meditation(TM)
    about 600 studies show that most of the benefits ascribed to meditation are from and only from or mainly from TM program

    Dr Fred Travis and DR Alarik Arenander are neuroscientists with main focus on meditation and brain scans ; 32 channel EEG ; it is very economical to do ; fMRI is a pretty penny ; a philanthropist should donate a fMRI machine to mum.edu

    October 27, 2010 at 5:35 pm |
    • neuromancer

      If researchers look at MRI's of TM subjects they may find the most significant changes yet in brain results from meditation. I do TM but I would never participate in an MRI because it is too invasive a technology. So many meditators feel that way, and that's why there are very few MRI studies on TM. Maharishi actually discouraged it.

      EEG, on the other hand, is not so bad and may end up being more significant anyway, because it shows the brain's type of cognitive processing, levels of integration and coherence, and EEG coherence is becoming recognized as associated with higher states of consciousness (i.e., stabilized pure awareness).

      October 27, 2010 at 8:37 pm |
  19. Reality

    Every Sunday, I meditate on the NFL.

    October 27, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
  20. Gregory Goldmacher

    For me, meditation is like an elliptical for the mind/spirit. It's hard for me to get myself to do it at all, but it I can manage to do it consistently it pays off in greater peace of mind and ability to concentrate.

    October 27, 2010 at 4:08 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.