Why Meditation Works & How it Changes Your Life
Meditation is becoming a cornerstone in all manner of spheres, from spiritual groups to the U.S. Military, and yoga classes to entrepreneurs – this piece explores why it’s become such a powerful tool and looks at several key studies outlining its impact.
Firstly, a coalition of researchers from Norway and Australia have released stunning scans of the brain in a meditative state.
The coalition set out to find which method of meditation – zen, mindfulness, etcetera – is the most effective.
The researches placed differing techniques into two main groups: concentrative meditation and nondirective meditation.
Concentrative meditation is a method which emphasises concentrating on one factor, such as breath or a thought or feeling.
The nondirective method is when the mind may wander as it pleases.
Read: Why Meditate? A Guide
In the study, fourteen people who had extensive experience with the Norwegian
In addition to simple resting, they undertook two different mental meditation activities, nondirective meditation
The results showed that the n
When test subjects performed concentrative meditation, the activity in this part of the brain was almost the same as when they were just resting.
“The study indicates that nondirective meditation allows for more room to process memories and emotions than during concentrated meditation,” said Svend Davanger, a neuroscientist at the University of Oslo.
He added: “This area of the brain has its highest activity when we rest. It represents a kind of basic operating system, a resting network that takes over when external tasks do not require our attention.
“It is remarkable that a mental task like nondirective meditation results in even higher activity in this network than regular rest.”
Meditation Enhances Ability to Handle Feedback
In another study, researchers from the University of Surrey have discovered a link between meditation and how individuals respond to feedback.
Participants in the study, a mixture of experienced, novice and non-meditators, were trained to select images associated with a reward.
Each pair of images had varying probabilities of a reward e.g. images that result in a reward 80 percent of the time versus those that result in a reward 20 percent of the time.
Participants eventually learnt to select the pairing with the higher outcome.
Researchers found that participants who meditated were more successful in selecting high-probability pairings indicating a tendency to learn from positive outcomes, compared to non — meditators who learned the pattern via low-probability pairings suggesting a tendency to learn from negative outcomes.
During the study participants were connected to an EEG, a non-invasive method that records electrical patterns in the brain.
Results from the EEG found that while all three groups responded similarly to positive feedback, the neurological response to negative feedback was highest in the non-meditation group, followed by the novice group and then by the experienced meditation group.
These results indicate that the brains of meditators are less affected by negative feedback, and that this may be a result of altered dopamine levels caused by meditation.
Paul Knytl, lead author and PhD candidate in psychology at the University of Surrey, said: “Humans have been meditating for over 2,000 years, but the neural mechanisms of this practice are still relatively unknown.
“These findings demonstrate that, on a deep level, meditators respond to feedback in a more even-handed way than non-meditators, which may help to explain some of the psychological benefits they experience from the practice.”
Bertram Opitz, Professor in Neuroimaging and Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Surrey, said: “Meditation is a powerful tool for the body and the mind; it can reduce stress and improve immune function.
“What we have found is that it can also impact on how we receive feedback, i.e. if we quickly learn from our mistakes or if we need to keep making them before we find the right answer.”
Meditation Reaps Differing Results
Another study from Michigan State University – the largest of its kind to date – has found that meditation can help you to become less error-prone.
The research, published in Brain Sciences, tested how open-monitoring meditation (a technique that focuses awareness on feelings, thoughts or sensations as they unfold in one’s mind and body) altered brain activity in a way that suggests increased error recognition.
“People’s interest in meditation and mindfulness is outpacing what science can prove in terms of effects and benefits,” said Jeff Lin, MSU psychology doctoral candidate and study co-author.
“But it’s amazing to me that we were able to see how one session of guided meditation can produce changes to brain activity in non-meditators.”
Meditation forms and results
The findings suggest that different forms of meditation can have different neurocognitive effects and Lin explained that there is little research about how open-monitoring impacts error recognition.
“Some forms of meditation have you focus on a single object, commonly your breath, but open-monitoring meditation is a bit different,” Lin said.
“It has you tune inward and pay attention to everything going on in your mind and body. The goal is to sit quietly and pay close attention to where the mind travels without getting too caught up in the scenery.”
Lin and his MSU co-authors William Eckerle, Ling Peng and Jason Moser recruited more than 200 participants to test how open-monitoring affected how people detect and respond to errors.
The participants, who had never meditated before, were taken through a 20-minute open-monitoring meditation exercise while the researchers measured brain activity through electroencephalography (EEG).
Then, they completed a computerized distraction test.
“The EEG can measure brain activity at the millisecond level, so we got precise measures of neural activity right after mistakes compared to correct responses,” Lin said.
“A certain neural signal occurs about half a second after an error called the error positivity, which is linked to conscious error recognition. We found that the strength of this signal is increased in the meditators relative to controls.”
Sustained meditation practice is the key
While the meditators didn’t have immediate improvements to actual task performance, the researchers’ findings offer a promising window into the potential of sustained meditation.
“These findings are a strong demonstration of what just 20 minutes of meditation can do to enhance the brain’s ability to detect and pay attention to mistakes,” Moser said.
“It makes us feel more confident in what mindfulness meditation might really be capable of for performance and daily functioning right there in the moment.”
While meditation and mindfulness have gained mainstream interest in recent years, Lin is among a relatively small group of researchers that take a neuroscientific approach to assessing their psychological and performance effects.
Looking ahead, Lin said that the next phase of research will be to include a broader group of participants, test different forms of meditation and determine whether changes in brain activity can translate to behavioral changes with more long-term practice.
“It’s great to see the public’s enthusiasm for mindfulness, but there’s still plenty of work from a scientific perspective to be done to understand the benefits it can have, and equally importantly, how it actually works,” Lin said.
“It’s time we start looking at it through a more rigorous lens,” he concluded.
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25% of Meditators Face ‘Unpleasant Experiences’
More than a quarter of people who regularly meditate have had a ‘particularly unpleasant’ psychological experience related to the practice, including feelings of fear and distorted emotions, a UCL-led study has found.
The research, published in PLOS ONE, also found those who had attended a meditation retreat, those who only practiced deconstructive types of meditation, such as Vipassana (insight) and Koan practice (used in Zen Buddhism), and those with higher levels of repetitive negative thinking, were more likely to report a ‘particularly unpleasant’ meditation-related experience.
However, the study, which comprised an international online survey of 1,232 people who had at least two months’ meditation experience, found female participants and those with a religious belief were less likely to have had a ‘particularly unpleasant’ experience.
Recovering Man Founder Richard Joy said: “Meditation is known for its transcendental capacities, and this can often involve deep and troubling emotions arising.
“What has worked for me has been taking breaks from meditation and working on simpler meditations that calm the body before engaging in my practice again, which once restored has been much more peaceful.”
You can view one of Richard’s guided meditations for full body relaxation below: