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Meditation Influences the Brain Outside of the Practice

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Meditation can have measurable effects on how the brain functions – even when the person is not actively meditation, according to a new study based on an 8-week meditation training program.

Published in the November issue of “Frontiers in Human Neuroscience,” investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Boston University (BU), and several other research centers also found differences in those effects based on the specific type of meditation practiced, according to the report.

“The two different types of meditation training our study participants completed yielded some differences in the response of the amygdala – a part of the brain known for decades to be important for emotion – to images with emotional content,” said Gaëlle Desbordes, PhD, one of the report authors, and a research fellow at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH and at the BU Center for Computational Neuroscience and Neural Technology. “This is the first time that meditation training has been shown to affect emotional processing in the brain outside of a meditative state.”

Participants enrolled in a larger investigation into the effects of two forms of meditation, based at Emory University in Atlanta. Healthy adults with no experience meditating participated in 8-week courses in either mindful attention meditation or compassion meditation, while a control group participated in an 8-week health education course.

Within three weeks before beginning and three weeks after completing the training, 12 participants from each group traveled to Boston for fMRI brain imaging at the Martinos Center’s state-of-the-art imaging facilities. Brain scans were performed as the volunteers viewed a series of 216 different images – 108 per session – of people in situations with either positive, negative or neutral emotional content.

Meditation was not mentioned in pre-imaging instructions to participants, and investigators confirmed afterwards the volunteers had not meditated while in the scanner. Participants also completed assessments of symptoms of depression and anxiety before and after the training programs.

In the mindful attention group, the after-training brain scans showed a decrease in activation in the right amygdala in response to all images, supporting the hypothesis that meditation can improve emotional stability and response to stress. In the compassion meditation group, right amygdala activity also decreased in response to positive or neutral images.

However, among those who reported practicing compassion meditation most frequently outside of the training sessions, right amygdala activity tended to increase in response to negative images – all of which depicted some form of human suffering. No significant changes were seen in the control group or in the left amygdala of any study participants.

“We think these two forms of meditation cultivate different aspects of mind,” Desbordes said in the report. “Since compassion meditation is designed to enhance compassionate feelings, it makes sense that it could increase amygdala response to seeing people suffer. Increased amygdala activation was also correlated with decreased depression scores in the compassion meditation group, which suggests that having more compassion towards others may also be beneficial for oneself. 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.”

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