The Triple Helix @ UChicago

Fall 2016

"Your mind on meditation" by Yohyoh Wang

 

In recent years, a large population of busy, working Americans have joined the wellness movement. Sunlit yoga classes swelling into atonal choirs of soft oohs and ahhs, Whole Foods aisles bursting with supplements to sharpen one’s mind, and self-help articles urging readers to slow down and take time for yourself are all symptomatic of a collective embrace of wellness and mindfulness. One notable practice – meditation – has pushed to the forefront of this blossoming movement. Conscious relaxation is practiced by Wall Street bankers via Transcendental Meditation, offered in smartphone applications like Headspace, and even advocated on our own campus by the Health Promotion and Wellness department. 

Meditation is an ancient practice, having been practiced by Buddhist and Hindu monks since around 1500 B.C.[1], but it has only recently become accessible to a modern, secular audience. Novice meditators are instructed to simply sit comfortably, breathe naturally, and focus on the physical sensations of the body. This brief practice serves as a break from the stresses and worries of day-to-day life. While meditation offers emotional perks - long-time and novice meditators alike have reported feeling relaxed, calmer, and clearer-headed after their practice - its benefits extend further into the human body, particularly the brain. This article will explore the research conducted on meditation’s effect on neurological thinking and function, as demonstrated by participants with a various amounts of meditation experience. 

Short-term benefits of meditation

One does not need to adapt a lifestyle change to develop resilience to stress; even short bouts of meditation prove highly beneficial to a frazzled mind. A study led by David Creswell from Carnegie Mellon University[2] examined the effects of meditation training on patients’ responses to the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), designed as a series of controlled stressful situations. Participants in the experimental group received three days of twenty-five-minute meditation trainings, during which they were instructed to pay attention to their breath, bodily sensations, and thoughts and emotions. For the same duration, participants in the control group were instructed to read and analyze a set of poems. Upon taking the TSST, the experimental group self-reported lower levels of stress than did the control group; that is, those who underwent three days of meditation training perceived that they were less stressed than those who did not. 

Brief meditation has also been shown to alter brain anatomy, particularly in regions associated with self-referential thinking. In a study led by Britta Hölzel from the Massachusetts General Hospital[3], participants underwent the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, consisting of weekly group meetings and at-home exercises such as mindful yoga and meditation. An average of 22.6 total hours was spent per individual over the course of the program. Two weeks after the MBSR program concluded, MRI scans of the participants were recorded and compared to scans taken prior to the experiment. Results revealed increased gray matter concentration in four regions of the brain commonly associated with self-referential processing: the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), the left temporo-parietal junction (TPJ), and two clusters in the cerebellum. The PCC is involved in attention and emotion, the TPJ in language and comprehension, and the cerebellum in coordination and body awareness. 

Other studies[4] have identified additional brain regions positively affected by meditation. These regions include the anterior cingulate cortex, associated with self-regulation, and the hippocampus, associated with emotion and memory. An increase in gray matter (neuronal cell bodies and connections) in these areas suggests that meditation can fortify the higher processes associated with psychological well-being and resilience against stress. 

Most working Americans can only practice meditation as a “moonlight” activity – a routine calming of an overworked mind – by starting or ending their day with ten minutes of mindfulness. Thankfully, even small bouts of meditation can generate psychological and neuroanatomical changes associated with overall emotional amelioration. 

Long-term benefits of meditation

Those who fuse mindfulness with their everyday lives, or turn away from the causes of their stress to pursue a lifestyle of mindfulness, often tout the enduring benefits of prolonged, rigorous meditative practice. The portrayal of the calm, wise monk in literature and pop culture is an ever-present reminder of this common sequitur. Look no further than His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, who maintains his presence on the world stage with press conferences and self-penned articles urging people to practice kindness. 

To examine the effects of long-term meditative practice, Antonietta Manna of the G. D’Annuzio University Foundation[5] led a study comparing the functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) data of Buddhist monks and “moonlight” meditators while meditating. Novice meditators with only ten days of practice showed fMRI activation in the posterior and anterior cingulate cortex, which was consistent with the Hölzel study conclusions. Monks also showed activation of the anterior cingulate cortex; but in addition to this area, the anterior prefrontal cortex and superior temporal gyrus were also activated above baseline. These two regions are associated with personality expression and social cognition, respectively. The increased stimulation of social cognitive regions in the brains of the monks, for whom mindfulness is a lifestyle, suggests that meditation could, in addition to bringing about peace of mind, encourage prosocial, or selfless, behavior. 

The case for meditation’s positive influence on prosocial behavior has been made by multiple studies. A single day of compassionate meditation training, which included meditation and mindfulness exercises, increased compassionate behaviors of participants in a virtual game. [6] A two-week period of training enhanced participants’ willingness to take on financial burdens to help someone who needed the money. [7] An eight-week period of training raised the percentage of participants who gave up a seat to someone in more need. [8] 

Although meditation in any dosage seems to proffer mental and emotional benefits, it remains to be seen whether the mindfulness movement alone can cultivate a prosocial environment for the working American. “Moonlight” meditators, while able to temporarily retreat into peaceful meditation, may require deeper or lengthier sessions than what currently fits in a busy schedule. Perhaps regular meditation on its own does not give rise to significant neurological or psychological benefits; but, for now, the post-Om buzz is enough to keep the movement going.

References

[1] Robert Puff. “An Overview of Meditation: Its Origins and Traditions,” Psychology Today, July 7, 2013, accessed November 30, 2016, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/meditation-modern-life/201307/overview-meditation-its-origins-and-traditions. 
[2] J. David Creswell, Laura E. Pacilio, Emily K. Lindsay, and Kirk Warren Brown. “Brief mindfulness meditation training alters psychological and neuroendocrine responses to social evaluative stress,” Psychoneuroendocrinology (2014): 44, accessed November 9, 2016, doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2014.02.007. 
[3] Britta K. Hölzel, James Carmody, Mark Vangel, Christina Congleton, Sita M. Yerramsetti, Tim Gard, and Sara W. Lazar. “Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density,” Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging (2011): 191, accessed November 10, 2016, doi: 10.1016/j.psychresns.2010.08.006. 
[4] Christina Congleton, Britta K. Hölzel, and Sara W. Lazar. “Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain”, Harvard Business Review, January 8, 2015, accessed November 10, 2016, https://hbr.org/2015/01/mindfulness-can-literally-change-your-brain. 
[5] Antonietta Manna, Antonino Raffone, Mauro Gianni Perrucci, Davide Nardo, Antonio Ferretti, Armando Tartaro, Alessandro Londei, Cosimo Del Gratta, Marta Olivetti Belardinelli, and Gian Luca Romani. “Neural correlates of focused attention and cognitive monitoring in meditation,” Brain Research Bulletin (2010): 82, accessed November 12, 2016, doi: 10.1016/j.brainresbull.2010.03.001. 
[6] Susanne Leiberg, Olga Klimecki, and Tania Singer. “Short-Term Compassion Training Increase Prosocial Behavior in a Newly Developed Prosocial Game,” PLoS One (2011), accessed November 14, 2016, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0017798. 
[7] Helen Y. Weng, Andrew S. Fox, Alexander J. Shackman, Diane E. Stodola, Jessica Z. K. Caldwell, Matthew C. Olson, Gregory M. Rogers, and Richard J. Davidson. “Compassion training alters altruism and neural responses to suffering,” Psychological Science (2013): 24, accessed November 14, 2016, doi: 10.1177/0956697612469537. 
[8] Paul Condon, Gaëlle Desbordes, Willa B. Miller, and David DeSteno. “Meditation Increases Compassionate Responses to Suffering,” Psychological Science (2013): 24, accessed November 14, 2016, doi: 10.1177/0956797613485603. 
[9] Shaw, Bob. The Dalai Lama on a chairlift in the mountains of New Mexico. April, 1991.

 
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