Meditation from the Perspective of Neuroscience
Only a few decades ago, meditation was known as the spiritual practice of Buddhist monks and Indian yogis. Yet nowadays, even Hollywood stars, footballers and politicians are meditating. That is not surprising; after all, the positive effect of meditation on the general well-being is renowned worldwide. Science has proven the impact of meditation on the human brain several times. Let's take a look at the neuroscience perspective on meditation.
Different types of meditation
Of course, there is a huge variety of different meditation practices. Roughly, however, they can be divided into two types of meditation:
Mindfulness or consciousness meditation – The meditators focus on observing spontaneous thoughts and feelings from a detached perspective and try not to judge them.
Concentration-based meditation – The meditators focus their attention on a specific object or element, such as a burning candle, mantra, colour, or sensation.
In both cases, they pay attention. In this way, the meditating persons are in the here and now, accepting with serenity what happens in and around them at the very moment.
The goal of meditation practice
What is the purpose of meditation? First, there are two major components, which make up the meditation practice:
On the one hand, the meditators practice self-regulation, as they must direct their attention to the object of meditation and maintain it. In addition, they must avoid evaluating the feelings and thoughts, which arise during meditation, by just watching them.
On the other hand, meditation is all about the experience, so the meditators must be open, tolerant and curious about what is going on in their mind. They should be open, acceptant and tolerant for negative feelings as well as for the immediate reactions they can cause.
Ultimately, the goal of regular meditation practice is to develop the ability to look at one's own internal processes and free oneself from prejudices, both towards oneself and towards others. Because meditation should lead to more attention and mindfulness of the own inner as well as outer world, broaden one’s horizon and promote a greater understanding. Let's look at some scientific experiments, which examined the effectiveness of meditation.
Experiments with the attentional blink test
In 1992, a research team led by psychologist Jane E. Raymond conducted a scientific experiment at the University of Bangor, UK. The aim was to investigate whether meditation favours the ability of visual attention. The research team created a test to investigate the so-called attentional blink. This is a short attention deficit,
which occurs in experiments, for example, when subjects should remember an item from a short and fast sequence of numbers and letters. The process performed during the test was essentially as follows:
In the middle of a computer screen, a very fast sequence of letters appeared one after the other. Repeatedly, within the sequence of letters, two numbers were visible between which other letters could appear. The subjects participating in the study were previously asked to remember the numbers that might be displayed. For example, u-p-q-t-2-f-v-7-x-h-y. It turned out that the majority of subjects were unable to see the second number from the list if the time interval between two numbers was not at least half a second or more.
The scientists repeated the same experiment with subjects who had received meditation classes over a longer period of 3 to 4 months for several hours a day. The majority of these subjects were able to recognise the second number most of the time.
The neurological explanation of the attentional blink
How could that be? In this experiment, they measured the electroencephalic waves, which occur in the brain during the so-called attentional blink, using an electroencephalograph (EEG). They attached electrodes to the head to analyse the brain waves with the EEG device.
When the first number appeared on the screen, the EEG recorded the curves that showed the brain was responding. However, in the subjects who practiced meditation, these curves were smaller and stabilised much faster than in the subjects of a control group who did not meditate. The group of meditators was able to reach, much faster than the control group, the initial level of attention it had before the first number appeared. Due to its improved attention, this group was able to perceive the second number.
The brain at rest
At rest, the brain processes run unnoticed in the background. This happens when we are not concentrating on any particular task. During these processes, a complex network of areas in the brain is active, especially in the prefrontal cortex and cingulate gyrus, which is part of the limbic system. The brain needs a lot of energy for these background processes.
And why does our brain do that? Our brain is constantly doing mental exercises to prepare for the future. It reviews events, envisages possible future scenarios and weighs potentials and risks. However, it is precisely these kinds of thoughts, which meditators try to reduce in order to live more in the here and now.
Experiments have demonstrated that regular practice of meditation facilitates the reduction of brain activity at rest, especially in the prefrontal cortex and the cingulate gyrus.
Meditation and empathy
Numerous studies have shown that a certain part of the cerebral cortex, the so-called insula, plays a fundamental role in the recognition of one's own feelings. As is now
known, the performance of the insula and thus the awareness of one's own feelings through the practice of long-term meditation improve. Likewise, the ability to recognise one's own feelings is the key to the ability to empathise with others. Empathy arises when we can perceive other people's emotions as our own.
Studies by Antoine Lutz and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, prove this. In their research experiment, they compared two groups, one with experienced meditators and one with subjects who had little experience in meditation. The more experienced the meditators were, the more intense was the activity in the insula. The intensity was much higher among all the experienced meditators compared to the group of inexperienced ones.
To conduct this experiment, the subjects laid down on an MRI apparatus, which recorded their brain activity. Then they had to listen to certain sounds, such as the laughter of a baby or the cries of another person. It was found that experienced meditators have a greater empathy, as their insula responded more intensely to the sounds.
Stanford University, USA, has a whole research institute dealing with empathy and altruism. Neuro-economist Brian Knutson studied the brain of some Buddhist monks to measure the response of the nucleus accumbens. This part of the brain is responsible for risk and reward. When rewarded, our brains develop happiness through the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which teaches us to do certain things and leave others.
When the monks meditated on unconditional love, kindness, and compassion, their brains produced gamma waves with a vibration of about 40 cycles per second, which are an indication of very high attention and were easily measurable using an EEG.
How is it possible that meditation alters processes in the brain? The answer is neuronal plasticity. Basically, the neuronal plasticity of the brain is due to the fact that the intensive use of certain neural circuits amplifies them, which facilitates their future activation. This is because the prolonged use of a neural circuit creates new neural connections while strengthening existing ones. Neural connections that are little used can be equally weakened.
Thus, meditation is a proven effective way to consciously train the brain, discard old habits and learn new ones, reduce negative emotions and strengthen positive ones. Hence, experienced meditators have control over their brains and not the other way around. They are not the victims of situations and events in their environment or once learned thought patterns from the past, but can take an inner attitude that feels best in the here and now and thus consciously shape their own lives. No wonder more and more people are meditating!