Research on meditation

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EEG technology has been used for meditation research

Since the 1950s hundreds of studies on meditation have been conducted, though many of the early studies were flawed and thus yielded unreliable results.[1][2] More recent reviews have pointed out many of these flaws with the hope of guiding current research into a more fruitful path.[3]

Research on the processes and effects of meditation is a growing subfield of neurological research.[4][5] Modern scientific techniques and instruments, such as fMRI and EEG, have been used to see what happens in the bodies of people when they meditate, and how their bodies and brains change after meditating regularly.[4][6][7]

Meditation is a broad term which encompasses a number of practices.

Mindfulness[edit]

Main article: Mindfulness

Systematic reviews and meta-analyses[edit]

According to a 2015 systematic review and meta-analysis of systematic reviews of RCTs, evidence supports the use of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs to alleviate symptoms of a variety of mental and physical disorders.[8] This review included a combined total of 8683 participants consisting of different patient categories as well as healthy adults and children.[8] A previous study commissioned by the US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that meditation interventions reduce multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress.[9] However, this study used a highly heterogeneous group of meditation styles and many of the studies included in this review were short term studies. Other systematic reviews and meta-analysis show that mindfulness meditation has several mental health benefits such as bringing about reductions in depression symptoms,[10][11][12] and mindfulness interventions also appear to be a promising intervention for managing depression in youth.[13][14] Mindfulness meditation is useful for managing stress[11][15][16] anxiety,[10][11][16] and also appears to be effective in treating substance use disorders.[17][18][19] Other review studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can enhance the psychological functioning of breast cancer survivors,[20] effective for eating disorders,[21][22] and may also be effective in treating psychosis.[23][24][25]

Singular studies[edit]

Studies have also shown that rumination and worry contribute to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety,[26] and mindfulness-based interventions are effective in the reduction of worry.[26][27]

Mindfulness meditation also appears to bring about favorable structural changes in the brain.[4][6][7] One recent study found a significant cortical thickness increase in individuals who underwent a brief -8 weeks- MBSR training program and that this increase was coupled with a significant reduction of several psychological indices related to worry, state anxiety, depression.[28] Another study describes how mindfulness based interventions target neurocognitive mechanisms of addiction at the attention-appraisal-emotion interface.[18]

Some studies suggest that mindfulness meditation contributes to a more coherent and healthy sense of self and identity, when considering aspects such as sense of responsibility, authenticity, compassion, self-acceptance and character.[29][30]

Mindfulness scales[edit]

In the relatively new field of western psychological mindfulness, researchers attempt to define and measure the results of mindfulness primarily through controlled, randomised studies of mindfulness intervention on various dependent variables. The participants in mindfulness interventions measure many of the outcomes of such interventions subjectively. For this reason, several mindfulness inventories or scales (a set of questions posed to a subject whose answers output the subject's aggregate answers in the form of a rating or category) have arisen. Twelve such methods are mentioned by the Mindfulness Research Guide[31] Examples include:

Through the use of these scales - which can illuminate self-reported changes in levels of mindfulness, the measurement of other correlated inventories in fields such as subjective well-being, and the measurement of other correlated variables such as health and performance - researchers have produced studies that investigate the nature and effects of mindfulness. The research on the outcomes of mindfulness falls into two main categories: stress reduction and positive-state elevation.

Brain mechanisms[edit]

In 2011, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) released findings from a study in which magnetic resonance images were taken of the brains of 16 participants 2 weeks before and after the participants joined the mindfulness meditation (MM) program by researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, Bender Institute of Neuroimaging in Germany, and the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Researchers concluded that

..these findings may represent an underlying brain mechanism associated with mindfulness-based improvements in mental health.[33]

The analgesic effect of MM involves multiple brain mechanisms including the activation of the anterior cingulate cortex and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.[34] In addition, brief periods of MM training increases the amount of grey matter in the hippocampus and parietal lobe.[35] Other neural changes resulting from MM may increase the efficiency of attentional control.[36]

Participation in MBSR programmes has been found to correlate with decreases in right basolateral amygdala gray matter density,[37] and increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus.[38]

Attention and Mindfulness[edit]

Attention networks and mindfulness meditation[edit]

Psychological and Buddhists conceptualisations of mindfulness both highlight awareness and attention training as key components, in which levels of mindfulness can be cultivated with practise of mindfulness meditation.[39] Focused attention meditation and open monitoring meditation are distinct types of mindfulness meditation, and the former relates to directing and maintaining attention on a chosen object (e.g. the breath).[40] Open monitoring meditation does not involve focus on a specific object, and instead awareness is grounded in the perceptual features of one’s environment.

Focused attention meditation is typically practised first to increase the ability to enhance attentional stability, and awareness of mental states with the goal being to transition to open monitoring meditation practise that emphases the ability to monitor moment by moment changes in experience, without a focus of attention to maintain. Mindfulness meditation may lead to greater cognitive flexibility [41][42]

Neurological processes underlying focused attention meditation[edit]

It is considered that focused attention meditation entails the activation of attention networks in the following manner:[43]

  1. Initially the alerting network of attention is activated involving sustaining attention on a chosen object. It is associated with the right parietal cortex, right frontal cortex and the thalamus [43]
  2. When mind wandering occurs this relates to activation of the default mode network associated with the following brain areas: the posterior cingulate cortex, posterior lateral parietal/temporal cortices, the cingulate cortex, and the parahippocampal gyrus.[44] This attention network is associated with certain attentional states as introspective thought and daydreaming. Conversely, when de-activated it relates to task-engagement.[45]
  3. Distraction from the focus of attention is detected by the salience network, and is associated with the task of monitoring the focus of attention. The associated brain regions include the cingulate cortex and the anterior insula [46]
  4. When a distracting thought grabs the focus of attention away from the chosen object, the executive function network is capable of inhibiting this from being further processed. This network reduces the distractibility of aspects of one’s environment, and is associated with the basal ganglia, lateral ventral cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) [47]
  5. The orienting network of attention, which controls stimulus selection, involves shifting the focus of attention back to the original object. The superior colliculus and frontal eye fields as well as the temporal parietal junction and the superior parietal cortex are implicated.[48]

Evidence for improvements in three areas of attention[edit]

Sustained attention Tasks of sustained attention relate to vigilance and the preparedness that aids completing a particular task goal. Psychological research into the relationship between mindfulness meditation and the sustained attention network have revealed the following:

  • Mindfulness meditators have demonstrated superior performance when the stimulus to be detected in a task was unexpected, relative to when it was expected. This suggests that attention resources were more readily available in order to perform well in the task. This was despite not receiving a visual cue to aid performance. (Valentine & Sweet, 1999).
  • In a Continuous performance task [49] an association was found between higher dispositional mindfulness and more stable maintenance of sustained attention.
  • In an EEG study,[50] the Attentional blink effect was reduced, and P3b ERP amplitude decreased in a group of participants that completed a mindfulness retreat.[51] The incidence of reduced attentional blink effect relates to an increase in detectability of a second target. This may have been due to a greater ability to allocate attentional resources for detecting the second target, reflected in a reduced P3b amplitude.
  • A greater degree of attentional resources may also be reflected in faster response times in task performance, as was found for participants with higher levels of mindfulness experience.[52]

Selective attention

  • Selective attention as linked with the orientation network, is involved in selecting the relevant stimuli to attend to.
  • Performance in the ability to limit attention to potentially sensory inputs (i.e. selective attention) was found to be higher following the completion of an 8-week MBSR course, compared to a one-month retreat and control group (with no mindfulness training).[52] The ANT task is a general applicable task designed to test the three attention networks, in which participants are required to determine the direction of a central arrow on a computer screen.[53] Efficiency in orienting that represent the capacity to selectively attend to stimuli was calculated by examining changes in the reaction time that accompanied cues indicating where the target would occur relative to the aid of no cues.
  • Meditation experience was found to correlate negatively with reaction times on a Eriksen flanker task measuring responses to global and local figures. Similar findings have been observed for correlations between mindfulness experience in an orienting score of response times taken from Attention Network Task performance.[54]

Executive control attention Executive control attention include functions of inhibiting the conscious processing of distracting information. In the context of mindful meditation, distracting information would relate to attention grabbing mental events such as thoughts related to the future or past.[40]

  • More than one study have reported findings of a reduced Stroop effect following mindfulness meditation training.[41][55][56] The Stroop effect indexes interference created by having words printed in colour that differ to the read semantic meaning e.g. green printed in red. However findings for this task are not consistently found.[57][58] For instance the MBSR may differ to how mindful one becomes relative to a person who is already high in trait mindfulness.[43]
  • Using the Attention Network Task (a version of Eriksen flanker task [53] it was found that error scores that indicate executive control performance were reduced in experienced meditators [52] and following a brief 5 session mindfulness training program.[55]
  • A neuroimaging study supports behavioural research findings that higher levels of mindfulness are associated with greater proficiency to inhibit distracting information. As greater activation of the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) was shown for mindfulness meditators than matched controls. .
  • Following a Stroop test, reduced amplitude of the P3 ERP component was found for a meditation group relative to control participants. This was taken to signify that mindfulness meditation improves executive control functions of attention. An increased amplitude in the N2 ERP component was also observed in the mindfulness meditation group, thought to reflect more efficient perceptual discrimination in earlier stages of perceptual processing.[59]

Emotion regulation and Mindfulness[edit]

Approaching emotions in an adaptive way relates to mindful emotion regulation, which aims to decrease avoidance or suppression of emotions, as well as decreasing over-arousal in emotional reactivity in response to events.[60] It is highlighted that emotion regulation is vital to mental stability.[61] Over-involvement with emotions may lead to critical over-analysis of thoughts and emotions, characterising rumination, predictive of poor mental health.[62] Reductions in rumination have been found following Mindfulness meditation practise.[63][64] Under-involvement with addressing difficult emotions -termed avoidance behaviours- also can be problematic [61] as these can bring about maladaptive defences such as denial, suppression, cognitive distortions, development of psychoses, and even substance abuse or self-harm as methods of avoidance.[65][66]

The mechanisms of Mindful emotion regulation[edit]

Through the initial foundations of attention control training, the focus of attention can more consciously be directed towards emotions that arise. Mindfulness combines this mechanism with a particular quality of attitudinal element,[67] of acceptance and non-judgemental awareness. This can range from acknowledging ‘tightness in the chest’ or ‘increases in heart rate’ as well as thought content and emotions that arise. Subsequently, during mindfulness meditation, difficult emotions that may arise become paired with a compassionate and accepting attitude,[60][68] which may gradually extinguish the fear of experiencing the emotions and any related thoughts. Mindfulness practise may lead to the development of metacognitive insight [67][69] or decentering.[68][70] These concepts relate the experiencing thoughts as they are, which is changeable and transient, and that they are not characteristic of absolute reality.[60] This may lead to increased cognitive flexibility [71] reflecting in more adaptively and consciously choosing mental content to identify with, rather than habitually responding. Alternatively a balanced and non-elaborative awareness of experience is cultivated,[60][68] that is not as easily disrupted by the magnitude of emotions experienced or provocative external events.

Evidence of mindfulness and emotion regulation outcomes[edit]

Emotional reactivity can be measured and reflected in brain regions related to the production of emotions.[72] It can also be reflected in tests of attentional performance, indexed in poorer performance in attention related tasks. The regulation of emotional reactivity as initiated by attentional control capacities can be taxing to performance, as attentional resources are limited [48]

  • Patients with social anxiety disorder (SAD) exhibited reduced amygdala activation in response to negative self-beliefs following an MBSR intervention program that involves mindfulness meditation practise [73]
  • The LPP ERP component indexes arousal and is larger in amplitude for emotionally salient stimuli relative to neutral.[74][75][76] Individuals higher in trait mindfulness showed lower LPP responses to high arousal unpleasant images. These findings suggest that individuals with higher trait mindfulness were better able to regulate emotional reactivity to emotionally evocative stimuli.[77]
  • Participants that completed a 7-week mindfulness training program demonstrated a reduction in a measure of emotional interference (measured as slower responses times following the presentation of emotional relative to neutral pictures). This suggests a reduction in emotional interference.[78]
  • Following a MBSR intervention, decreases in social anxiety symptom severity were found, as well as increases in bilateral parietal cortex neural correlates. This is thought to reflect the increased employment of inhibitory attentional control capacities to regulate emotions [79][80]

Controversies in mindful emotion regulation[edit]

It is debated as to whether top-down executive control regions such as the Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC),[81] are required [80] or not [73] to inhibit reactivity of the amygdala activation related to the production of evoked emotional responses. Arguably an initial increase in activation of executive control regions developed during mindfulness training may lessen with increasing mindfulness expertise [82]

Future directions[edit]

A large part of mindfulness research is dependent on technology. As new technology continues to be developed, new imaging techniques will become useful in this field. It would be interesting to use real-time fMRI to help give immediate feedback and guide participants through the programs. It could also be used to more easily train and evaluate mental states during meditation itself.[83] The new technology in the upcoming years offers many exciting potentials for the continued research.

An ancient model of the mind known as the Five-Aggregate Model has been proposed as a theoretical resource that could guide mindfulness interventions.[84] This model comprehensively describes moment-to-moment changes that happen in subjective conscious experience.

Research on other types of meditation[edit]

Insight (Vipassana) meditation[edit]

Insight meditation has been found to be associated with increased cortical thickness.[85]

Sahaja yoga and mental silence[edit]

Sahaja yoga meditation has been shown to correlate with particular brain and brain wave activity.[86][87] Some studies have led to suggestions that Sahaja meditation involves 'switching off' irrelevant brain networks for the maintenance of focused internalized attention and inhibition of inappropriate information.[88]

A study comparing practitioners of Sahaja Yoga meditation with a group of non meditators doing a simple relaxation exercise, measured a drop in skin temperature in the meditators compared to a rise in skin temperature in the non meditators as they relaxed. The researchers noted that all other meditation studies that have observed skin temperature have recorded increases and none have recorded a decrease in skin temperature. This suggests that Sahaja Yoga meditation, being a mental silence approach, may differ both experientially and physiologically from simple relaxation.[89] Sahaja meditators scored above peer group for emotional wellbeing measures on SF-36 ratings.[90]

Kundalini yoga[edit]

Kundalini yoga meditation research has found that there "appears to produce structural as well as intensity changes in phenomenological experiences of consciousness",[91] and that multiple regions of the brain are active.[citation needed]

Theoria[edit]

Fifteen Carmelite nuns came from the monastery to the laboratory to enter a fMRI machine whilst meditating, allowing scientists there to scan their brains using fMRI while they were in a state known as Unio Mystica (and also Theoria).[92] The documentary film Mystical Brain by Isabelle Raynauld examined this study.[93]

Integrative body-mind training[edit]

A study involving the participation of a group of college students, who were asked to use a meditation technique called integrative body-mind training (IBMT involves body relaxation, mental imagery, and mindfulness training), concluded that "meditating may improve the integrity and efficiency of certain connections in the brain" through an increase in their number and robustness.[94] Brain scans showed strong white matter changes in the anterior cingulate cortex.[95]

Transcendental[edit]

The first Transcendental Meditation (TM) research studies were conducted at UCLA and Harvard University and published in Science and the American Journal of Physiology in 1970 and 1971.[96] However, much research has been of poor quality,[1][97][98] including a high risk for bias due to the connection of researchers to the TM organization and the selection of subjects with a favorable opinion of TM.[99][100][101] Independent systematic reviews have not found health benefits for TM exceeding those of relaxation and health education.[1][97][100] A 2013 statement from the American Heart Association described the evidence supporting TM as a treatment for hypertension as Level IIB, meaning that TM "may be considered in clinical practice" but that its effectiveness is "unknown/unclear/uncertain or not well-established".[this quote needs a citation]

Research on unspecified or multiple types of meditation[edit]

Brain activity[edit]

The medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices have been found to be relatively deactivated during meditation (experienced meditators using concentration, lovingkindness and choiceless awareness meditation). In addition experienced meditators were found to have stronger coupling between the posterior cingulate, dorsal anterior cingulate, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices both when meditating and when not meditating.[102]

It was also observed that an eight-week MBSR course induced changes in gray matter concentrations.[103] Exploratory whole brain analyses identified significant increases in gray matter concentration in the PCC, TPJ, and the cerebellum. These results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.

Perception[edit]

Studies have shown that meditation has both short-term and long-term effects on various perceptual faculties. In 1984 a study showed that meditators have a significantly lower detection threshold for light stimuli of short duration.[104] In 2000 a study of the perception of visual illusions by zen masters, novice meditators, and non-meditators showed statistically significant effects found for the Poggendorff Illusion but not for the Müller-Lyer Illusion. The zen masters experienced a statistically significant reduction in initial illusion (measured as error in millimeters) and a lower decrement in illusion for subsequent trials.[105] Tloczynski has described the theory of mechanism behind the changes in perception that accompany mindfulness meditation thus: "A person who meditates consequently perceives objects more as directly experienced stimuli and less as concepts… With the removal or minimization of cognitive stimuli and generally increasing awareness, meditation can therefore influence both the quality (accuracy) and quantity (detection) of perception."[105] Brown also points to this as a possible explanation of the phenomenon: "[the higher rate of detection of single light flashes] involves quieting some of the higher mental processes which normally obstruct the perception of subtle events."[this quote needs a citation] In other words, the practice may temporarily or permanently alter some of the top-down processing involved in filtering subtle events usually deemed noise by the perceptual filters.[citation needed]

Relaxation response[edit]

Herbert Benson, founder of the Mind-Body Medical Institute, which is affiliated with Harvard University and several Boston hospitals, reports that meditation induces a host of biochemical and physical changes in the body collectively referred to as the "relaxation response".[106] The relaxation response includes changes in metabolism, heart rate, respiration, blood pressure and brain chemistry. Benson and his team have also done clinical studies at Buddhist monasteries in the Himalayan Mountains.[107] Benson wrote The Relaxation Response to document the benefits of meditation, which in 1975 were not yet widely known.[108]

Calming effects[edit]

According to a March 2006 article in Psychological Bulletin, EEG activity begins to slow as a result of the practice of meditation.[109] The human nervous system is composed of a parasympathetic system, which works to regulate heart rate, breathing and other involuntary motor functions, and a sympathetic system, which arouses the body, preparing it for vigorous activity. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has written, "It is thought that some types of meditation might work by reducing activity in the sympathetic nervous system and increasing activity in the parasympathetic nervous system,"[this quote needs a citation] or equivalently, that meditation produces a reduction in arousal and increase in relaxation.[citation needed]

Work stress[edit]

A study of GPs attending a meditation workshop found subsequent falls in their Kessler Psychological Distress Scale - 10 (K10) readings.[110]

Flow[edit]

Mindfulness meditation, mindfulness of the breath, and related techniques, are intended to train attention for the sake of provoking insight. A wider, more flexible attention span makes it easier to be aware of a situation, easier to be objective in emotionally or morally difficult situations, and easier to achieve a state of responsive, creative awareness or "flow".[111]

Slowing Ageing Process[edit]

Some researches were conducted to understand the malleable determinants of cellular aging, which is critical to understanding human longevity. The researchers concluded saying "We have reviewed data linking stress arousal and oxidative stress to telomere shortness. Meditative practices appear to improve the endocrine balance toward positive arousal (high DHEA, lower cortisol) and decrease oxidative stress. Thus, meditation practices may promote mitotic cell longevity both through decreasing stress hormones and oxidative stress and increasing hormones that may protect the telomere."[112][113][114]

Potential adverse effects and limits of meditation[edit]

The following is an official statement from the US government-run National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health:

"Meditation is considered to be safe for healthy people. There have been rare reports that meditation could cause or worsen symptoms in people who have certain psychiatric problems, but this question has not been fully researched. People with physical limitations may not be able to participate in certain meditative practices involving physical movement. Individuals with existing mental or physical health conditions should speak with their health care providers prior to starting a meditative practice and make their meditation instructor aware of their condition."[115]

Adverse effects have been reported,[116][117] and may, in some cases, be the result of "improper use of meditation".[118] The NIH advises prospective meditators to "ask about the training and experience of the meditation instructor… [they] are considering."[115]

As with any practice, meditation may also be used to avoid facing ongoing problems or emerging crises in the meditator's life. In such situations, it may instead be helpful to apply mindful attitudes acquired in meditation while actively engaging with current problems.[119][120] According to the NIH, meditation should not be used as a replacement for conventional health care or as a reason to postpone seeing a doctor.[115]

Weaknesses in historic meditation research[edit]

A comparison of the effect of various meditation techniques on systolic blood pressure.[1]

In June, 2007 the United States National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) published an independent, peer-reviewed, meta-analysis of the state of meditation research, conducted by researchers at the University of Alberta Evidence-based Practice Center. The report reviewed 813 studies involving five broad categories of meditation: mantra meditation, mindfulness meditation, yoga, T'ai chi, and Qigong, and included all studies on adults through September 2005, with a particular focus on research pertaining to hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and substance abuse.

The report concluded, "Scientific research on meditation practices does not appear to have a common theoretical perspective and is characterized by poor methodological quality. Firm conclusions on the effects of meditation practices in healthcare cannot be drawn based on the available evidence. Future research on meditation practices must be more rigorous in the design and execution of studies and in the analysis and reporting of results." (p. 6) It noted that there is no theoretical explanation of health effects from meditation common to all meditation techniques.[1]

A version of this report subsequently published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine stated that "Most clinical trials on meditation practices are generally characterized by poor methodological quality with significant threats to validity in every major quality domain assessed". This was the conclusion despite a statistically significant increase in quality of all reviewed meditation research, in general, over time between 1956 and 2005. Of the 400 clinical studies, 10% were found to be good quality. A call was made for rigorous study of meditation.[3] These authors also noted that this finding is not unique to the area of meditation research and that the quality of reporting is a frequent problem in other areas of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) research and related therapy research domains.

Of more than 3,000 scientific studies that were found in a comprehensive search of 17 relevant databases, only about 4% had randomised controlled trials (RCTs), which are designed to exclude the placebo effect.[1]

A 2013 statement from the American Heart Association evaluated the evidence for the effectiveness of TM as a treatment for hypertension as "unknown/unclear/uncertain or not well-established", and stated: "Because of many negative studies or mixed results and a paucity of available trials... other meditation techniques are not recommended in clinical practice to lower BP at this time."[121]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

References[edit]

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