Dedicated meditation affects the brain and emotional response even after we’ve finished meditating, according to a new study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. So if you haven’t been meditating, it may just be time to start.
“This is the first time that meditation training has been shown to affect emotional processing in the brain outside of a meditative state,” says Gaelle Desbordes.
Meditation Improves Stress Response, Increases Empathy
Desbordes co-authored the study, in which healthy subjects with no prior experience in meditation participated in one of three activities:
- Mindful attention meditation, which allows the participant to grow awareness of one’s breathing and state of mind,
- Compassion meditation, which encourages higher levels of empathy, or
- Discussion of health in a group of other participants.
Each subject trained for 2 hours weekly. After 8 weeks (16 hours, total, of health discussion or meditation training), researchers presented to the subjects images of people in emotionally positive, neutral, and negative states and situations.
The health discussion group experienced no significant changes in the brain, but participants of both meditation groups showed dramatic changes in the amydala, “a part of the brain known for decades to be important to emotion,” according to Desbordes. Trainees in mindful attention meditation showed less activity in the right amygdale compared to data taken before meditative training, indicating that they were better-equipped to handle stress and emotional difficulties after training. Subjects of compassion meditation, on the other hand, showed greater activity in the same area in the brain, indicating a greater level of empathy prior after training.
“Since compassion meditation is designed to enhance compassionate feelings, it makes sense that it could increase amygdale response to seeing people suffer,” says Desbordes. “Increase amygdale activation was also correlated with decressed depression scores in the compassion meditation group, which suggests that having more compassion towards others may also be beneficial for oneself.”
Health Benefits of Meditation
Although Buddhist practices were used for both types of meditation training, it is suspected that any kind of meditation—including that of other religious origins—would be equally beneficial. Meditation has also been shown to outperform morphine in pain relief and reduce stress and therefore risk of death. Try mindful breathing to begin your journey into meditation and greater health.