BrainWaves: The Neuroscience Graduate Program Newsletter

Change Your Mind, Consider Meditation

Author: Nikki Pangborn

Meditation practices vary across cultures and religions, each with its unique goals and methods. For instance, Buddhist meditation focuses on directing attention towards the body, thoughts, and breath, while Hinduism-based meditation aims to achieve a mental state called "Samadhi," characterized by a sense of losing self and duality to attain a state of "nothingness" (Tomasino et al., 2014). However, the common thread among most meditation practices is the intention to cultivate awareness of specific internal or external stimuli for psychological and physical benefit.

Current research is exploring the potential neurological, functional, cognitive, and mental health-related changes induced by meditation. Several studies have investigated these outcomes using techniques such as electroencephalography (EEG), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), structural MRI, and behavioural measures. As graduate students facing stress, it may be worthwhile to explore how meditation may be helpful for you. While research in this field is still limited, there are some important trends worth noting.

One area of interest is how meditation can influence functional brain networks and subsequently cognitive functioning. Kang et al. (2013) conducted a study using diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) and structural MRI, comparing cortical thickness differences between experienced and inexperienced meditators. The results revealed greater cortical thickness in the anterior regions of the frontal and temporal lobes among those who regularly meditate. While cognitive differences were not specifically examined, the authors suggest that these regions, involved in emotional processing, may contribute to positive variations in emotional functions between meditators and non-meditators.

Other research has directly measured the impacts of meditation on neurological and cognitive function using various meditation practices. Ding et al. (2015) employed the Chinese Remote Association Task (RAT) and fMRI to compare behavioral and neurological differences between participants practicing an experimental meditation (Integrative Body-Mind Training - IBMT) and a control condition (Relaxation Training - RT). The results showed that the IBMT group performed better on the RAT, with a higher proportion of correct responses compared to the RT group. Cognitive differences were also supported by distinct regional brain activation between groups, including increased activity in the right cingulate gyrus (implicated in cognitive control) and the insula (involved in perception and self-awareness) among participants practicing IBMT.

However, it is important to note that this research has limitations, and other studies examining meditation's effects on brain activity have found null results. For example, Lutterveld et al. (2017) found no differences in functional connectivity across theta, alpha, or beta bands between experienced and novice meditators using EEG, suggesting a lack of differences in neuronal connectivity. Thus, further research is necessary to determine whether meditation induces changes in brain activity or function. 

Of particular interest to students is research studying the benefits of meditation on mental health. Meditation as a means of reducing stress or anxiety is commonly associated with the practice, and there is substantial research supporting this notion. Krishnakumar et al. (2015) discussed how meditation might indirectly impact anxiety through altered neurotransmitter activity. For example, Tibetan Buddhist meditators displayed increased cerebral blood flow in the prefrontal cortex, indirectly stimulating GABA activity which correlates with reduced anxiety. Additionally, research on norepinephrine levels, which are believed to be heightened in individuals with anxiety, found that individuals who practiced meditation following heart failure exhibited reduced levels of norepinephrine compared to those who only attended weekly therapy sessions.

Finally, a meta-analysis by Gonzalez-Valero et al. (2019) reviewed studies investigating the effects of various treatments, including meditation, body therapies, and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), on stress, anxiety, and depression in students. The analysis indicated that while short-term treatments were less effective in reducing stress compared to long-term interventions, mindfulness treatments in particular showed larger effect sizes in terms of stress reduction compared to body therapy and CBT. The results related to anxiety were heterogenous but still indicated beneficial outcomes, with mindfulness treatment and body therapy showing moderate effect sizes. Regarding depression, mindfulness interventions generally produced medium effect sizes, although interventions specifically targeting university students displayed small effect sizes for depression.

Although a lot more research is needed to fully understand the scope of the benefits of meditation, it is something to consider trying. Even attempting to meditate for 1 minute a day could, over time, help reduce stress or anxiety and perhaps even improve aspects of executive control. For guidance at the beginning of your meditation journey, try out these resources: 

  1. – a quick guide on integrating short meditation into your daily life.
  2. - list of 10 free meditation apps 
  3. – playlist of short (<5 minute) guided meditation videos 

Ding, X., Tang, Y., Cao, C., Deng, Y., Wang, Y., Xin, X., & Posner, M. I. (2015). Short-term meditation modulates brain activity of insight evoked with solution cue.     Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

González-Valero, G., Zurita-Ortega, F., Ubago-Jiménez, J. L., & Puertas-Molero, P. (2019). Use of meditation and cognitive behavioral therapies for the treatment     of stress, depression and anxiety in students. A systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public     Health16(22), 4394.

Kang, D. H., Jo, H. J., Jung, W. H., Kim, S. H., Jung, Y. H., Choi, C. H., Lee, U. S., An, S. C., Jang, J. H., & Kwon, J. S. (2013). The effect of meditation on brain structure:     cortical thickness mapping and diffusion tensor imaging. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience8(1), 27–33.

Krishnakumar, D., Hamblin, M. R., & Lakshmanan, S. (2015). Meditation and yoga can modulate brain mechanisms that affect behavior and anxiety-a modern     scientific perspective. Ancient Science2(1), 13–19.

Tomasino, B., Chiesa, A., & Fabbro, F. (2014). Disentangling the neural mechanisms involved in Hinduism- and Buddhism-related meditations. Brain and     Cognition.

van Lutterveld, R., van Dellen, E., Pal, P., Yang, H., Stam, C. J., & Brewer, J. (2017). Meditation is associated with increased brain network     integration. NeuroImage158, 18–25.