A look at the science behind meditation

The Boston Globe, Apr. 22, 2003
By Judy Foreman, Globe Staff, 4/22/2003

For decades, open-minded patients and doctors have been touting the medical benefits of meditation, an ancient practice that comes in hundreds, if not thousands, of different flavors, but consists basically of quieting the mind through contemplation, prayer, or focusing on something simple, such as breathing.

Considerable research suggests that regular meditation, or practicing what Dr. Herbert Benson calls the ”relaxation response” for 10 to 20 minutes a day, can reverse many of the ill effects of stress. Benson, president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, has been a pioneer in the medical study of meditation.

The relaxation response has been shown to lower blood pressure, heart rate and respiration; to reduce anxiety, anger, hostility and mild-to-moderate depression; to help alleviate insomnia, premenstrual syndrome, hot flashes and infertility; and to relieve some types of pain, most notably tension headaches.

What nobody, until now, has even come close to explaining is how meditation may work. That is, what mechanisms within the brain might explain why changing one’s mental focus can have such large effects on mood and metabolism. Nor has there been, until now, much collaboration between neuroscientists and experts in meditation such as Buddhist monks.

All that is changing – fast.

A new study, soon to be published in Psychosomatic Medicine, is a significant first step in understanding what goes on in the brain during meditation. The study was led by Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

The underlying theory – one of many theories of depression – is that, in people who are stressed, anxious or depressed, the right frontal cortex of the brain is overactive and the left frontal cortex underactive. Such people sometimes show heightened activation of the amygdala, a key center in the brain for processing fear.

By contrast, people who are habitually calm and happy typically show greater activity in the left frontal cortex relative to the right, according to the theory. These lucky folks pump out less of the stress hormone cortisol, recover faster from negative events and have higher levels of certain immune cells.

Each person has a natural ”set point,” a baseline frontal cortex activity level that is characteristically tipped left or right, and around which daily fluctuations of mood swirl. What meditation may do is nudge this balance in the favorable direction.

To find out, they recruited stressed-out volunteers from the Promega Corp., a high-technology firm in Madison, Wis. At the outset, all volunteers were tested with EEGs, or electroencephalographs, in which electrodes were placed on the scalp to collect brain wave information. The volunteers were then randomized into one of two groups – 25 in the meditation group and 16 into the control group.

The meditators took an eight-week course developed by Kabat-Zinn. At the end of eight weeks, both meditators and controls were again given EEG tests and a flu shot. They also got blood tests to check for antibody response. Four months later, all got EEG tests again.

By the end of the study, the meditators’ brains showed a pronounced shift toward the left frontal lobe, while the nonmeditators’ brains did not, suggesting that meditation may have shifted the ”set point” to the left . The meditators also had more robust responses to the flu shots.

The new work fits with data suggesting that certain drugs mimic the effects of meditation in the brain, said Dr. Solomon Snyder, director of the department of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins Medical School. ”It’s reasonable to assume,” he said, that meditation may increase serotonin, a calming neurotransmitter, in the brain.

No one has been more fascinated by this kind of research than the Dalai Lama, the leader-in-exile of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Dalai Lama spent five days in March 2000 meeting with other Buddhist monks, philosophers and neuroscientists at a retreat in Daramsala, India, that is chronicled in a new book called ”Destructive Emotions” by Daniel Goleman, author of ”Emotional Intelligence.”

In addition to lots of esoteric debate, the conference had a practical outcome. One participant, Paul Ekman, professor of psychology at the School of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, invited several monks to visit his California lab so he could study them.

One meditator, a 60-year-old Frenchman who has been a monk for nearly 30 years, appeared able to suppress the startle reflex while meditating – a stunning display of control over a basic, biological response to stimuli such as a sudden loud noise. Meditation is, Ekman said cautiously, ”an exercise for the brain that could be of some benefit.”

So, what does it all mean? Obviously, a few studies on several dozen meditators is not the final answer as to how meditation produces changes in mood and biological functions.

Though it’s ”a wonderful tool,” no one should expect meditation to work miracles, cautioned psychologist and medical sociologist Barrie Cassileth, chief of the integrative medicine service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. It ”cannot bring about levitation. It cannot control cellular activity in the sense of getting rid of disease. It’s not going to let you fly to Europe on your own without a plane.”

But what these very preliminary studies do suggest is that, at long last, the subjective experience of meditation may prove capable of being understood objectively as well..

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