A number of recent studies – many using functional magnetic resonant imagining (fMRI) techniques to scan the brains of people as they meditate – have confirmed these ancient mental techniques’ ability to make physical changes in the brain. And anyone who has practiced meditation can attest to these techniques’ ability to help them “chill out” and release stress, tension, and anxiety. And that makes sense – how stressed out can you be if you’re just sitting and meditating? But a new study shows that the calming effects of meditation tend to influence the way that the brain works to process and handle emotions even when you’re not meditating.
The study, with the impressive name Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state, was conducted by researchers from Boston University, the University of Arizona, Massachusetts General Hospital, Emory University, and the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies. They were studying meditation’s effects on an area of the brain called the amygdala, which is intimately involved in the processing of emotion. Their research was just published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
The study’s methodology, and what it found
The researchers divided their subjects into three groups, and provided them with three different forms of preparation for the actual experiment. One of the groups was given an eight-week course in mindful attention meditation, during which they received instruction on how to become more attentive to their breathing, thinking, and feeling. The second group was given a course of a similar length on compassion meditation, during which they were trained to feel more compassion and kindness, both towards other people and towards themselves. The third group received no meditation training, and was instead given an eight-week course of general health information.
At the end of this eight-week “preparation” period, subjects from each group were given fMRI scans as they gazed at 216 images that were designed to provoke a reaction – either positive, neutral, or negative. The subjects who had taken either of the two meditation courses were also monitored to make sure that they were not meditating while the scans were being performed.
What they found was that people in either of the two meditation groups experienced significantly decreased activity in the amygdala areas of their brains whenever they were shown images designed to produce negative emotions. This was interpreted by the researchers as indicating that they were better able to handle and process these emotions, and that they were thus coping better with stressful stimuli and situations and as a result maintaining a more stable emotional state.
All of this was happening while they weren’t meditating
This is the key finding of this study that makes it unique. As study researcher Gaëlle Desbordes says, “This is the first time that meditation training has been shown to affect emotional processing in the brain outside of a meditative state.” Subjects in the study who had not received any meditation training (members of the third control group) actually saw an increase of activity in their amygdalas when viewing the negative images. But those who had taken a short (eight weeks of once-a-week meetings is, after all, not a huge investment in become a seasoned meditation practitioner) training course were still experiencing meditation’s calming effects, even while not meditating.
Because meditation training is being used more and more often in hospitals and clinical settings to treat conditions such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), these are important findings. As useful as meditation might be in helping people to calm themselves and feel less ruled by their emotions, you still can’t meditate all the time. And you can’t gracefully find yourself in a stressful or negative situation and react to it by excusing yourself, closing your eyes, and beginning to meditate. So the finding that the calming effects of meditation persist, and linger long after the meditation is over, is one more argument for its effectiveness in treating such problems.
These findings also suggest the same thing for those of us who may not suffer from depression or PTSD, but who want something to help us “chill” and better handle our emotions on a day-to-day basis. As its proponents have claimed for thousands of years, meditation is not just something you do for the twenty minutes or so you practice it; it’s something that affects your life outside of meditation as well, and in very positive ways.