The benefits of meditation

MIT and Harvard neuroscientists explain why the practice helps tune out distractions and relieve pain.


Studies have shown that meditating regularly can help relieve symptoms in people who suffer from chronic pain, but the neural mechanisms underlying the relief were unclear. Now, MIT and Harvard researchers have found a possible explanation for this phenomenon.

In a study published online April 21 in the journal Brain Research Bulletin, the researchers found that people trained to meditate over an eight-week period were better able to control a specific type of brain waves called alpha rhythms.

“These activity patterns are thought to minimize distractions, to diminish the likelihood stimuli will grab your attention,” says Christopher Moore, an MIT neuroscientist and senior author of the paper. “Our data indicate that meditation training makes you better at focusing, in part by allowing you to better regulate how things that arise will impact you.”

There are several different types of brain waves that help regulate the flow of information between brain cells, similar to the way that radio stations broadcast at specific frequencies. Alpha waves, the focus of this study, flow through cells in the brain’s cortex, where sensory information is processed. The alpha waves help suppress irrelevant or distracting sensory information.

A 1966 study showed that a group of Buddhist monks who meditated regularly had elevated alpha rhythms across their brains. In the new study, the researchers focused on the waves’ role in a specific part of the brain — cells of the sensory cortex that process tactile information from the hands and feet.

For this study, the researchers recruited 12 subjects who had never meditated before. Half of the participants were trained in a technique called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) over an eight-week period, while the other half were told not to meditate.

The MBSR program calls for participants to meditate for 45 minutes per day, after an initial two-and-a-half-hour training session. The subjects listen to a CD recording that guides them through the sessions.

The first two weeks are devoted to learning to pay close attention to body sensations. “They’re really learning to maintain and control their attention during the early part of the course. For example, they learn to focus sustained attention to the sensations of the breath; they also learn to engage and focus on body sensations in a specific area, such as the bottom of the feet, and then they practice disengaging and shifting the focus to another body area,” says Catherine Kerr, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and lead author of the paper.

The researchers did brain scans of the subjects before the study began, three weeks into it, and at the end of eight weeks. At eight weeks, the subjects who had been trained in meditation showed larger changes in the size (amplitude) of their alpha waves when asked to pay attention to a certain body part — for example, “left foot.” These changes in wave size also occurred more rapidly in the meditators.

The study is a “beautiful demonstration” of the effects of meditation training, and of the ability to cultivate an internal awareness of one’s own bodily sensations, says Clifford Saron, associate research scientist at the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California at Davis, who was not involved in the research.

Subjects in this study did not suffer from chronic pain, but the findings suggest that in pain sufferers who meditate, the beneficial effects may come from an ability to essentially turn down the volume on pain signals. “They learn to be aware of where their attention is focused and not get stuck on the painful area,” Kerr says.

The subjects trained in meditation also reported that they felt less stress than the non-meditators. “Their objective condition might not have changed, but they’re not as reactive to their situation,” Kerr says. “They’re more able to handle stress.”

The researchers are now planning follow-up studies in patients who suffer from chronic pain as well as cancer patients, who have also been shown to benefit from meditation.


Topics: Brain and cognitive sciences, Collaboration, McGovern Institute, Neuroscience

Comments

I'd love it if there were a room at MIT set aside for meditation. The chapel's chairs aren't suitable, and there are people going in and out so often.
I wish someone would do a study comparing meditation, hypnotism and subliminal messaging. Moreover, I wish they would study if these techniques, separate or together, could be used to improve the brains ability to learn.
I'd love to know if the CD is available.
The mind becomes more adaptive and goes in to meditaion readily with the practice of achieving a state of 0 thoughts in everyday life. This can be achieved either by holding on to a single thought like a holy name and then see it disappear leaving mind a blank or by sitting silently and just appreciating and feeling the nature, here one can see the sun rise or sun set, breeze blowing, trees swaying in wind, watch beauty in flowers and birds and think of nothing, Since While meditating the first aim is to achieve 0 thoughts,the internal journey begins only after all thoughts are gone. When this becomes a habbitto us we can always command our mind to sit in a crowded room and still achieve meditation. Thanks.
I would also like to know how we can get hold of the CD. This kind of a CD should be available on payment and not be restricted to only a few. Any suggestions about obtaining the CD will be much appreciated.
Not sure if you are all aware but MBSR is Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction - a secular practice that has been very widely researched in recent years. There are some excellent CDs around that follow the practices taught on the 8 week MBSR course. A good starting point is Jon Kabat Zinn who has worked tirelessly since the 1970s to bring mindfulness to westerners in an accessible, secular format. You might wish to try http://www.amazon.co.uk/Mindfulness-Beginners-Jon-Kabat-Zinn/dp/1591794641/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1317136554&sr=8-3 or http://www.amazon.co.uk/Mindful-Way-Through-Depression-Unhappiness/dp/1593851286/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1317136554&sr=8-2 For more generic information on mindfulness try http://www.mindfulnet.org/ - an independent mindfulness information website - which includes information research, the neuroscience of mindfulness and the forthcoming mindfulness at work conference. Hope this helps
Good article on benefits of Meditation. By engaging in easy to practice "mental activities" we are guiding our minds away from the external. We then begin to reduce inner noise and distractions to gain a deeper sense of mental peace as the mind very naturally settles inward. Like a mini vacation, these simple meditations relax and refresh us. Meditation is a method for developing inner peace by working with the mind. First we learn how to identify our different positive and negative mental states, and then we apply methods for eliminating negative states and cultivating positive ones. You don't need an excessive amount of time or experience to start meditating. All you need is a few minutes every day to settle your mind. Once you learn the basic meditation techniques, you can use these methods for 5-10 minutes every day to help you improve your life. Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
There's much more to meditation than meets the eye ... or even the mind's eye: http://edwardsaugstad.com/2011/01/08/meditation-and-collective-consciousness-2/
There's whole lot of links for the meditation guide that u r looking for (Although this is not exact CD in this article, but I guarantee 100% this is what u r looking for) That mindfulness meditation is also called body-scanning meditation. Awareness of every sensation. Here'r few links to it, but not limited to. (Can you afford not to meditate?) http://dhammadownload.com/MP3Library/UJotika/MP3-ENG-Disc2/08-UJotika-1-8-2003.mp3 (Meditation Instruction for beginners) http://dhammadownload.com/MP3Library/UJotika/MP3-ENG-Disc1/07-UJotika-13-3-1997.mp3 (more ......) http://www.dhammadownload.com/SayaDaw-UJotika-mp3-english.htm http://edhamma.net/?page_id=221 Although those are teaching of Buddhism, u don't have to be Buddhist to meditate. Buddha didn't say to believe just he said so, just showed d way how to do it, & u have 2 find the truth and it's beneficial for u or not practically by urself. Hope d links are beneficial for everyone! ..
Jon Kabat Zinn is speaking about Mindfulness tomorrow, Thursday, at 1pm-2pm, on the 1st floor of E25. Free admission. Sponsored by MIT Medical.
Usefulness of meditation in maintaining health of body/mind is universally accepted. But how while meditating in the right posture our CNS absorb more electro magnetic energy from Atmoshere (coming from sun, stars etc..)through filum terminale. But if we take more non-veg food and also impure materials contained in pesticide etc. our nervous system shall be hyperdense and impure. If we absorb more EM waves in this condition it shall be harmful to health (body mind).
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