The effects gained from meditation continue to affect brain function for a long time after meditation is over, according to new research.
"This is the first time meditation training has been shown to affect emotional processing in the brain outside of a meditative state," said Gaelle Desbordes, Ph.D., a research fellow at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital and at the Boston University Center for Computational Neuroscience and Neural Technology.
"Overall, these results are consistent with the overarching hypothesis that meditation may result in enduring, beneficial changes in brain function, especially in the area of emotional processing."
Before beginning the study, the researchers hypothesized that meditation assists in controlling emotional responses, even in a non-meditative state.
During meditation, the area of the brain that contains the amygdala showed decreased activity. The amygdala is a mass of gray matter inside of each cerebral hemisphere that is involved with the experiencing of emotions.
When the subjects were shown images of other people that were good, bad, or neutral for a mindfulness technique known as "compassion meditation," the amygdala was extraordinarily responsive.
The participants were able to focus their attention and significantly reduce their emotional reactions. The study found that they were able to retain this ability for eight weeks after the testing concluded. The subjects demonstrated subdued emotional response and increased compassion for others when faced with disturbing images, even when they were no longer in the meditative state.
Another group of Harvard Medical School researchers studied the effect of meditation on retaining information. Their hypothesis was that meditators have more intentional influence over alpha rhythm – a brain wave believed to screen out everyday distractions.
"Mindfulness meditation has been reported to enhance numerous mental abilities, including rapid memory recall," said Catherine Kerr of the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and the Osher Research Center, both at Harvard Medical School.
"Our discovery that mindfulness meditators more quickly adjusted the brain wave that screens out distraction could explain their superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts."
Both studies used participants that did not have prior experience with meditation. Over the course of a two-month period and a three-month period, both groups showed significant change in their daily normal brain function.
This research supports a belief held by some researchers – that meditation may help reduce dependency on pharmaceutical drugs.
"The implications extend far beyond meditation," said Kerr. "They give us clues about possible ways to help people better regulate a brain rhythm that is deregulated in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and other conditions."
Image by Wonderlane, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.