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In a world of constant noise and stimulation, it might seem difficult to find any kind of tranquility. With the skyrocketing rates of prescribed anxiety medication and a growing level of neurosis, people are having a lot of trouble cutting through all the ruckus to actually enjoy some peace and quiet. That’s why neuroscientists have been starting to approach the topic of meditation on brain function and why it shouldn’t be dismissed so quickly.
At Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Boston University (BU), research into the patterns of the meditating mind are showing results that have left many of the proctors of the study surprised. Not only did they see a change in brain function while the subjects were meditating, but also well after and when they were engaged in other activities.
“This is the first time meditation training has been shown to affect emotional processing in the brain outside of a meditative state,” says Gaëlle Desbordes, a research fellow at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH and at the BU Center for Computational Neuroscience and Neural Technology in an interview with The Harvard Gazette. “Overall, these results are consistent with the overarching hypothesis that meditation may result in enduring, beneficial changes in brain function, especially in the area of emotional processing.”
The study was set-up with the hypothesis that meditating could control emotional responses. During meditation sessions, the amygdala of the subjects, an area known for the processing of emotional stimuli, showed decreased activity. Though, when presented with images of other people that were either good, bad, or neutral for a practice known as “compassion meditation,” the amygdala was exceptionally responsive.
When faced with their internal monologue, the subjects were able to focus their attention and significantly reduce the emotional response of their brain, an organ that’s always clicking and whirring. Over an eight week period, this practice stayed with the subjects and even when they were not engaged in a meditative state, their emotional responses to internal stimuli were subdued and they demonstrated more compassion for others when faced with upsetting images.
Another group started research around the same time at Harvard Medical School (HMS) to study the effect of meditation on retaining information. Their hypothesis was that people who meditate have more control over the brain wave known as the alpha rhythm. The rhythm is believed to screen out some of the distractions we face during the day, allowing for more important information to be processed.
“Mindfulness meditation has been reported to enhance numerous mental abilities, including rapid memory recall,” says Catherine Kerr of the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and the Osher Research Center, both at HMS, in an interview with the Harvard Gazette. “Our discovery that mindfulness meditators more quickly adjusted the brain wave that screens out distraction could explain their superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts.”
Being able to block out distractions is no easy task but both these studies used subjects that had not previously meditated. Over an eight-week period and a 12-week period, both groups showed a marked change in their daily normal brain function, while they were meditating and while they were involved in medial activities.
No one’s claiming that any of the subjects left the study bending spoons or reading thoughts but they were able to record positive changes in each individual’s brain over a short period of time. Doctors have been starting to suggest meditation as a step to ridding a person of anxiety rather then immediately medicating them. Easy to digest meditation practices have been making the rounds all over the internet. Some of the researchers are beginning to think this might be the key to help ease a lot of our dependency on pharmaceutical drugs. “The implications extend far beyond meditation,” says Kerr. “They give us clues about possible ways to help people better regulate a brain rhythm that is deregulated in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and other conditions.”