Regular meditation has been touted as a stress reducer for years, but a recent study says practitioners benefit from a brain boost as well. CNN anchor Fredericka Whitfield spoke with Sara Lazar, a research scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School, about the study and meditation’s apparent benefits.
WHITFIELD: Explain to me why, based on your study, have you learned that meditation really has a calming effect and perhaps even may boost brain power?
LAZAR: What we found was that people who have been practicing Buddhist insight meditation have a thicker cortex in some parts of their brain than people who don’t meditate.
WHITFIELD: Let’s talk about the methods of meditation because, you know, it seems as though there are lots of different definitions of what constitutes real meditation. Based on your study, how long do you need to meditate and what are the methods of doing it?
LAZAR: Well, these people in particular practice something called insight meditation, which is a form of meditation where you just watch your breath. As you inhale and exhale, you just watch the sensations associated with it. They practice, on average, about 40 minutes a day. We have people with as little as one year of experience and as many as 30 years of experience. […]
And what we saw is that the thickness was correlated with the amount of practice they had, so even people with a just few years of practice had a bigger cortex.
WHITFIELD: So even with this wide-range conclusion from your study, it doesn’t necessarily mean that this has to be a practice of your lifetime. You can pick it up later on in life.
WHITFIELD: And still, perhaps, enjoy some of the very same benefits as a lifelong [practitioner]?
LAZAR: Definitely, yes. We need to do the studies to test that conclusively, but it does suggest that every hour counts, and that, you know, everything counts.
Some of the practitioners, three of the practitioners also practiced yoga, and it looked like they were also receiving benefits from doing yoga, so it looks like it’s not just this particular type of meditation.
WHITFIELD: What are some of the other benefits that you learned from those conducting the study? Getting involved with yoga, while it may boost brain power, what did it do to people’s stress level?
LAZAR: Well, unfortunately, we didn’t test that in this particular study though there have been other studies which have shown that meditation can decrease stress. It can also decrease anxiety and depression and it has beneficial effects for a variety of other illnesses.
WHITFIELD: Now that you have this conclusion to your study, how do you try to convey this to the general populace that this is something that everyone needs to either learn how to practice or improve, if they are already practicing?
LAZAR: Well, I don’t know that you can improve. I mean, I think just doing it and having a practice that you enjoy doing is the important thing. I would say the most important thing is to just find a practice you enjoy. So if you try one and you don’t like it, try something else.
WHITFIELD: Well, you know, it’s interesting you come out with this study when just this past weekend, the Dalai Lama was here in the United States in Washington during a neuroscience convention and not everyone liked the notion of meditation and science coming together. In fact, there were a number of neuroscientists who signed petitions saying they didn’t want him to speak about this.
Why is it that some are willing to embrace meditation as a true form of science with real medicinal benefits while others are not?
LAZAR: Well, some of the science has been not quite as rigorous as it should be. So I think that has hampered some of the efforts of people who are doing good science. Also, I think there was some political motivation behind some of those people who signed it concerning the Dalai Lama being the leader of Tibet. Also, you know, I think some people just like controversy.
WHITFIELD: All right. So your best recommendation, Sara Lazar, your meditation can just be simply a moment of silence, or does it have to be attached with an Om?
LAZAR: No, not at all. These practitioners do not use a mantra. These practitioners just watch the breath — inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. It’s sometimes referred to as mindfulness meditation or insight meditation. Again, we think that whatever form you choose to practice will probably be beneficial.
Meditation may be one way to keep the heart healthy, say researchers who have discovered how it keeps blood pressure low. And for people whose hearts are already suffering from disease, the way to prevent further complications is to remain optimistic. The studies support evidence suggesting that stressed people and those prone to mood swings are at greater risk of heart disease.
Scientists at the Medical College of Georgia discovered why people who practice meditation daily had significantly lower blood pressure than those who did not. The practice keeps blood vessels open, thus lowering the pressure – and high blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease.
Dr Vernon Barnes, who led the study, said: “For years we’ve known that long-term practitioners of transcendental meditation generally have lower blood pressure than others the same age.”We are now beginning to understand the underlying mechanisms responsible for the beneficial influence of meditation on risk factors for heart disease.”
Practitioners of the technique say that meditation differs from other types because it does not involve concentration. They say it comes naturally like breathing. The researchers compared 18 people who had practiced transcendental meditation daily over a period of years – who all already had very low blood pressure – with 14 “very healthy” middle-aged adults who did not meditate. All were given two tests. The subjects’ heart rate and blood pressure were measured first as they rested with their eyes open, and then with their eyes shut.
For the eyes shut test, the meditators were told to meditate and the others were told to relax “as completely as possible”. During this session, the meditation group showed a decrease in blood pressure and less constriction of the blood vessels while the others showed increases. “The contrast between the two groups might have been greater if the meditation participants had been studied in their home environment,” Dr Barnes said.
“Some participants reported their meditation was disturbed by the inflation of the blood pressure cuff every five minutes and by the fact that they were not allowed to sit in a cross-legged position as they were accustomed to doing during meditation at home.” The findings were published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine on Monday.
Optimism prevents complications
Other research published in the journal found that an optimistic response to heart disease could help patients avoid an attack. It found that following surgery to deal with the condition, those patients who were most upbeat about their chances of survival were the least likely to suffer further heart problems. Patients’ attitudes were measured on a scale of “cognitive adaptation”, which indexed their ability to adopt a positive outlook.
The researchers said they did not know why this should be, but they suggested it could be that those with higher cognitive adaptation skills took better care of themselves generally. Alternatively, they said, the psychological wellbeing could have some undefined effect on the physical processes that operate in heart disease.
When Julia Banks was almost 70, she took up transcendental meditation. She had clogged arteries, high blood pressure and too much weight around the middle, and she enrolled in a clinical trial testing the benefits of meditation.
Now Mrs. Banks, 79, of Milwaukee, meditates twice a day, every day, for 20 minutes each time, setting aside what she calls “a little time for myself.”
“You never think you’ve got that time to spare, but you take that time for yourself and you get the relaxation you need,” said Mrs. Banks, who survived a major heart attack and a lengthy hospitalization after coronary artery bypass surgery six years ago.
“You have things on your mind, but you just blot it out and do the meditation, and you find yourself being more graceful in your own life,” she said. “You find out problems you thought you had don’t exist — they were just things you focused on.”
Could the mental relaxation have real physiological benefits? For Mrs. Banks, the study suggests, it may have. She has gotten her blood pressure under control, though she still takes medication for it, and has lost about 75 pounds.
Findings from the study were presented this week at an American Heart Association meeting in Orlando, Fla. They suggest that meditation may have real therapeutic value for high-risk people, like Mrs. Banks, with established coronary artery disease. Meditation can actually help curb heart attacks.
After following about 200 patients for an average of five years, researchers said, the high-risk patients who meditated cut their risk of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from all causes roughly in half compared with a group of similar patients who were given more conventional education about healthy diet and lifestyle.
Among the roughly 100 patients who meditated, there were 20 heart attacks, strokes and deaths; in the comparison group, there were 32. The meditators tended to remain disease-free longer and also reduced their systolic blood pressure by five millimeters of mercury, on average.
“We found reduced blood pressure that was significant – that was probably one important mediator,” said Dr. Robert Schneider, director of the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention, a research institute based in Fairfield, Iowa, who presented the findings. The study was conducted at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, in collaboration with the institute.
An earlier study of high-risk Milwaukee residents, many of them overweight or obese, also found meditation, along with conventional medications, could help reduce blood pressure. Most of those in the study had only high-school educations or less, about 40 percent smoked and roughly half had incomes of less than $10,000 a year.
The participants found meditation easy to learn and practice, Dr. Schneider said.
“Fortunately, it does not require any particular education and doesn’t conflict with lifestyle philosophy or beliefs; it’s a straightforward technique for getting deep rest to the mind and body,” he said, adding that he believes the technique “helps to reset the body’s own self-repair and homeostatic mechanism.”
Dr. Schneider said other benefits of meditation might follow from stress reduction, which could cause changes in the brain that cut stress hormones like cortisol and dampen the inflammatory processes associated with atherosclerosis.
“What is it about stress that causes cardiovascular disease?” said Dr. Theodore Kotchen, associate dean for clinical research at the Medical College of Wisconsin. “Hormones, neural hormones, cortisol, catecholamines — all tend to be elevated in stress. Could they in some way be contributing to cardiovascular disease? Could a reduction in these hormones with meditation be contributing to reduction in disease? We can only speculate.”
Another recent study focusing on transcendental meditation, published in The American Journal of Hypertension, focused on a young healthy population. It found that stressed-out college students improved their mood through meditation., and those at risk for hypertension were able to reduce their blood pressure. Dr. Schneider was also involved in that study, which was carried out at American University in Washington and included 298 students randomly assigned to either a meditation group or a waiting list.
Students who were at risk of hypertension and practiced meditation reduced systolic blood pressure by 6.3 millimeters of mercury and their diastolic pressure by 4 millimeters of mercury on average.
Certainly anything that helps us fight stress is a welcome tool. But what else might meditation be doing for us? Since researchers like Herbert Benson, M.D. began amassing data, many studies have shown that indeed meditation has not only a mental but a profound physiological effect on the body.
Studies have shown that, in addition to helping reduce anxiety issues, meditation can help reverse heart disease, the number-one killer in the U.S. It can reduce pain and enhance the body’s immune system, enabling it to better fight disease.
More new research offers additional encouragement. In a study published last year in the journal Stroke, 60 African-Americans with atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, practiced meditation for six to nine months. (African-Americans are twice as likely to die from cardiovascular disease as are whites.) The meditators showed a marked decrease in the thickness of their artery walls, while the non-meditators actually showed an increase. The change for the meditation group could potentially bring about an 11 percent decrease in the risk of heart attack and an 8 percent to 15 percent decrease in the risk of stroke.
A second study, published last year in Psychosomatic Medicine, taught a randomized group of 90 cancer patients mindful meditation (another type of practice). After seven weeks, those who had meditated reported that they were significantly less depressed, anxious, angry and confused than the control group, which hadn’t practiced meditation. The meditators also had more energy and fewer heart and gastrointestinal problems than did the other group.
Other recent research has looked at precisely what happens during meditation that allows it to cause these positive physical changes. Researchers at the Maharishi School of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, found that meditation has a pervasive effect on stress. They looked at a group of people who had meditated for four months and found that they produced less of the stress hormone cortisol. They were therefore better able to adapt to stress in their lives, no matter what their circumstances were.
Diana Adile Kirschner, Ph.D., a Philadelphia-area clinical psychologist, sometimes refers her clients to learn meditation and has seen firsthand how helpful it can be. “Not only is meditation an absolutely marvellous way to release stress, it works wonders when it comes to dealing with anxiety issues and it helps people better relate to one another,” she says. “I can tell when clients are following through with meditation. For instance, I had a couple who consistently bickered. After they started meditating, they came in less angry, more self-reflective and more loving.”
So why aren’t more people taking up the practice? “Because it puts us in the middle of ourselves, which is not always where we want to be,” suggests Thomson. “Often, we want to fix things rather than accept them the way they are. Many of us feel as though we can’t afford the time and energy to meditate, when in fact we can’t afford not to.”
Epstein and several other experts feel that meditation’s effectiveness has to do with putting aside attachment to one’s ego. As he says, “When you look directly at a star at night, it’s difficult to see. But when you look away slightly, it comes into focus. I find it to be the same way with the ego and meditating. When one zeroes in on a sense of self through a practice of meditation, the self-important ego paradoxically becomes elusive. You become more aware that you are interconnected with other beings, and you can better put your own worries into their proper perspective.”
A group of elderly Chinese maintain their connection by meeting every daybreak in the village common in Monterey Park, California. They swoop their arms and stretch their torsos in graceful harmony, and then stand absolutely still, simply meditating. Only puffs of warm air flow from their nostrils. All of them look vibrant and relatively young, when in fact they are well into their years.
While western scientists are still exploring exactly how and why meditation works, we already know that it has both physiological and psychological benefits. And many therapists consider it a valid complement to more traditional therapies. So perhaps we should simply take Thomson’s advice and the Tibetans’ lead and do what makes us feel better in the end.
Meditation produces powerful pain-relieving effects in the brain, according to new research published in the April 6 edition of the Journal of Neuroscience.
“This is the first study to show that only a little over an hour of meditation training can dramatically reduce both the experience of pain and pain-related brain activation,” said Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., lead author of the study and post-doctoral research fellow at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.
Meditation reduces pain. “We found a big effect – about a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness. Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25 percent.” For the study, 15 healthy volunteers who had never meditated attended four, 20-minute classes to learn a meditation technique known as focused attention.
Focused attention is a form of mindfulness meditation where people are taught to attend to the breath and let go of distracting thoughts and emotions. Both before and after meditation training, study participants’ brain activity was examined using a special type of imaging — arterial spin labelling magnetic resonance imaging (ASL MRI) — that captures longer duration brain processes, such as meditation, better than a standard MRI scan of brain function.
During these scans, a pain-inducing heat device was placed on the participants’ right legs. This device heated a small area of their skin to 120° Fahrenheit, a temperature that most people find painful, over a 5-minute period. The scans taken after meditation training showed that every participant’s pain ratings were reduced, with decreases ranging from 11 to 93 percent, Zeidan said. This clearly shows that meditation reduces pain.
At the same time, meditation significantly reduced brain activity in the primary somatosensory cortex, an area that is crucially involved in creating the feeling of where and how intense a painful stimulus is. The scans taken before meditation training showed activity in this area was very high. However, when participants were meditating during the scans, activity in this important pain-processing region could not be detected.
The research also showed that meditation increased brain activity in areas including the anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula and the orbitofrontal cortex. “These areas all shape how the brain builds an experience of pain from nerve signals that are coming in from the body,” said Robert C. Coghill, Ph.D., senior author of the study and associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist.
“Consistent with this function, the more that these areas were activated by meditation the more that pain was reduced. One of the reasons that meditation may have been so effective in blocking pain was that it did not work at just one place in the brain, but instead reduced pain at multiple levels of processing.”
Zeidan and colleagues believe that meditation has great potential for clinical use because so little training was required to produce such dramatic pain-relieving effects. “In terms of meditation reducing pain, this study shows that meditation produces real effects in the brain and can provide an effective way for people to substantially reduce their pain without medications,” Zeidan said.
Participating in an 8-week mindfulness meditation program appears to make measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. In a study that will appear in the January 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, a team led by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers report the results of their study, the first to document meditation-produced changes over time in the brain’s grey matter.
“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” says Sara Lazar, PhD, of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program, the study’s senior author. “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”