Benefits of Meditation

For the purpose of this article, research on meditation concerns research into the psychological and physiological effects of meditation using the scientific method of the western tradition. In recent years, these studies have increasingly involved the use of modern scientific techniques and instruments, such as fMRI and EEG which are able to directly observe brain physiology and neural activity in living subjects, either during the act of meditation itself, or before and after a meditation effort, thus allowing linkages to be established between meditative practice and changes in brain structure or function.

Since the 1950s hundreds of studies on meditation have been conducted. Yet, many of the early studies were flawed and thus yielded unreliable results.[1][2] Contemporary studies have attempted to address many of these flaws with the hope of guiding current research into a more fruitful path.[3] In 2013, researchers at Johns Hopkins identified 47 studies that qualify as well-designed and therefore reliable. Based on these studies, they concluded that meditation appears to be as effective in treating some forms of anxiety and depression as antidepressant medication. Their findings were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in early 2014.[1]

The process of meditation, as well as its effects, is a growing subfield of neurological research.[4][5] Modern scientific techniques and instruments, such as fMRI and EEG, have been used to study how regular meditation affects individuals by measuring brain and bodily changes.[4][6][7]

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

3 Alpha Meditations 

Into Delight, Joy of Being and Flow State 

▶️ Simply Slip On Your Headphones and Relax 🎧

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✓ Creativity and Intuition

✓ Deep Relaxation

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Mindfulnes

One meta-analysis supported the use of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to alleviate symptoms of a variety of mental and physical disorders.[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] 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] A recent meta analysis by Hilton et al. (2016) including 30 randomized controlled trials found high quality evidence for improvement in depressive symptoms.[20] Other review studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can enhance the psychological functioning of breast cancer survivors,[11] effective for eating disorders,[21][22] and may also be effective in treating psychosis.[23][24][25]

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]

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.[28][29]

Mindfulness scales

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[30]

Brain mechanisms

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.[31]

The analgesic effect of MM involves multiple brain mechanisms including the activation of the anterior cingulate cortex and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.[32] In addition, brief periods of MM training increases the amount of grey matter in the hippocampus and parietal lobe.[33] Other neural changes resulting from MM may increase the efficiency of attentional control.[34]

Participation in MBSR programmes has been found to correlate with decreases in right basolateral amygdala gray matter density,[35] and increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus.[36]

Changes in the brain

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.[37] Another study describes how mindfulness based interventions target neurocognitive mechanisms of addiction at the attention-appraisal-emotion interface.[18] A meta-analysis by Fox et al. (2014) using results from 21 brain imaging studies found consistent differences in the region of the prefronal cortex and other brain regions associated with body awareness. In terms of effect size the mean effect was rated as moderate. (Cohen's d = 0.46) However the results should be interpreted with caution because funnel plots indicate that publication bias is an issue in meditation research.[38] A follow up by Fox et al. (2016) using 78 functional neuro-imaging studies suggests that different meditation styles are reliably associated with different brain activity. Activations in some brain regions are usually accompanied by deactivation in others. This finding suggests that meditation research must put emphasis on comparing practices from the same style of meditation, for example results from studies investigating focused attention methods cannot be compared to results from open monitoring approaches.[39]

Attention and mindfulness

Attention networks and mindfulness meditation

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.[40]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).[41] 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 practiced 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 emphasizes 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 [42][43]

Evidence for improvements in three areas of attention

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 [44] an association was found between higher dispositional mindfulness and more stable maintenance of sustained attention.
  • In an EEG study,[45] the Attentional blink effect was reduced, and P3b ERP amplitude decreased in a group of participants that completed a mindfulness retreat.[46] 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.[47]

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).[47] 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.[48] 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 an 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.[49]

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.[41]

  • More than one study have reported findings of a reduced Stroop effect following mindfulness meditation training.[42][50][51] 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.[52][53] For instance the MBSR may differ to how mindful one becomes relative to a person who is already high in trait mindfulness.[54]
  • Using the Attention Network Task (a version of Eriksen flanker task [48]) it was found that error scores that indicate executive control performance were reduced in experienced meditators [47] and following a brief 5 session mindfulness training program.[50]
  • 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.[55]

Emotion regulation and mindfulness

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.[56] It is highlighted that emotion regulation is vital to mental stability.[57] Over-involvement with emotions may lead to critical over-analysis of thoughts and emotions, characterising rumination, predictive of poor mental health.[58] Reductions in rumination have been found following Mindfulness meditation practise.[59][60] Under-involvement with addressing difficult emotions -termed avoidance behaviours- also can be problematic [57]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.[61][62]

The mechanisms of mindful emotion regulation

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,[63] 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,[56][64] which may gradually extinguish the fear of experiencing the emotions and any related thoughts. Mindfulness practise may lead to the development of metacognitive insight [63][65] or decentering.[64][66] These concepts relate the experiencing thoughts as they are, which is changeable and transient, and that they are not characteristic of absolute reality.[56] This may lead to increased cognitive flexibility [67] 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,[56][64] that is not as easily disrupted by the magnitude of emotions experienced or provocative external events.

Evidence of mindfulness and emotion regulation outcomes

Emotional reactivity can be measured and reflected in brain regions related to the production of emotions.[68] 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 [69]

  • 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 [70]
  • The LPP ERP component indexes arousal and is larger in amplitude for emotionally salient stimuli relative to neutral.[71][72][73] 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.[74]
  • 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.[75]
  • 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 [76][77]