From Obama’s BRAIN Initiative to John Oliver’s social outrage, public interest in how the physical mind contributes to behavior and personality is at a high point. With this fresh understanding of our brains comes a desire to personally manipulate our neurology to address common mental health issues like anxiety or depression, as well as a desire to enhance focus and cognitive ability. While some proposed practices are high-tech, the decidedly low-tech practice of meditation is generating a lot of buzz. In particular, a subset of the practice, called mindfulness meditation, has recently been a focus of investigation in the field of neuroscience.
Mindfulness meditation, or Vipassana, is a specific school of meditation originating from Buddhist traditions. As opposed to mantra-oriented transcendental meditation, mindfulness meditation is focused on awareness of the present moment. A major goal of the practice is to promote recognition of the mind-body connection, allowing the practitioner to recognize thoughts from a distance and preventing them from simply acting on impulse.
The claims made by proponents of mindfulness meditation are extensive, but there is scientific support for many of the benefits. A meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine found that meditation can help treat mild anxiety and depression, as well as be an effective tool to manage stress. Mindfulness meditation has also been successfully used in chronic pain management. In light of the ongoing opioid abuse epidemic in the United States, alternative strategies to manage pain without the side effects of narcotic drugs may become more appealing to doctors.
However, like most trendy panaceas that come along, meditation should not be blindly embraced. This year, the British Journal of Psychiatry published a randomized controlled trial showing that patients with depression in remission who switched to mindfulness meditation from their previous medication were more likely to relapse into mental illness. Meditation may also negatively affect some individuals, rather than improving their quality of life. While meditation has been widely popularized as a mental health cure-all, it’s worth noting that, for some, it is a potentially dangerous replacement for conventional treatment.
This disconnect between the observed positive effects of mindfulness practice and the negative experiences that have been reported after intensive meditation is highlighted by how little we know about the neurological changes that occur with meditative practice. Use of the latest technology in the scientific investigation of meditation has only just begun, but there have been observable physical changes associated with mindfulness meditation, including increased thickness of the cerebral cortex, a brain region associated with attention and sensory processing, and an enlarged hippocampus, a region involved in regulating emotional response. Meditation may also help slow the loss of gray matter in the brain that occurs naturally as we age.
However, major changes in brain structure and size won’t necessarily be able to address why mindfulness meditation can help in the treatment of mental disorders and pain, or why different people may have extremely different responses to meditation. We are only just beginning to understand the finer details in neuroscience, including how neurotransmitters and neural circuitry contribute to overall brain function. As new tools and information become available, a more detailed picture is emerging of how meditation alters neurology, resulting in changes in perception and behavior. For example, meditation was recently shown to increase connectivity of specific neural networks while decreasing the connectivity of others, indicating that there is considerable nuance to the effects of meditation on the brain. Personally, I’m hoping that both public interest and research funding hold out long enough for satisfying explanations to be found.
Charlene Charlene is a PhD student in Molecular and Human Genetics, currently studying DNA repair using yeast as a model organism. She plans on pursuing a career in science communications.