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Mindfulness Meditation Effectively Changes The Brain, Study Finds

in YD News
Awesome and creepy brain pool | illustration by Anna Parini via NYT

Awesome and creepy brain pool. | illustration by Anna Parini via NYT

Can meditation change your brain longterm? Can anyone prove it?

A recent study found out what happens when you teach one group of people mindfulness practices and give the other group a totally fake program.

Published in Biological Psychiatry, the study involved 35 men and women who were unemployed and stressed out looking for jobs. Half underwent formal mindfulness training and the other half were given the placebo — relaxation lessons.

So what was the difference you ask? A few things.

Mindfulness meditation requires ‘‘an open and receptive, nonjudgmental awareness of your present-moment experience,’’ says J. David Creswell, who led the study and is an associate professor of psychology and the director of the Health and Human Performance Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University.

Via the New York Times:

‘‘We had everyone do stretching exercises, for instance,’’ Dr. Creswell says. The mindfulness group paid close attention to bodily sensations, including unpleasant ones. The relaxation group was encouraged to chatter and ignore their bodies, while their leader cracked jokes. At the end of three days, the participants all told the researchers that they felt refreshed and better able to withstand the stress of unemployment. Yet follow-up brain scans showed differences in only those who underwent mindfulness meditation. There was more activity, or communication, among the portions of their brains that process stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm. Four months later, those who had practiced mindfulness showed much lower levels in their blood of a marker of unhealthy inflammation than the relaxation group, even though few were still meditating.

Could three days of mindfulness be enough to last that long and make a difference? This study sure breaks open an interesting case for it. However, there’s still no definitive “prescription” so to speak. “We still have no idea about the ideal dose,” says Dr. Creswell. So, no “take two mindful minutes and call me in the morning” scenario quite yet.

It’s been tough to categorically quantify the effects of meditation on our brain. We’ve seen some neat sciencey things on the power of meditation and there are so many ongoing yoga and meditation studies there going to need a study on yoga and meditation studies soon. But we’re not complaining. Scientific studies have become the hallmark of legitimacy in our culture, plus it’s always interesting to learn more about how it affects our brains in the short, and apparently, in the long term. Even if we already know the results of our self-study.



13 comments… add one
  • This is so interesting. The brain is such a fascinating thing. I have recently started meditating and I definitely feel a difference in not only my thoughts, but in my body as well. In my very unscientific trial, meditation works!

  • I practice Yoga once a week, but we do not meditate a lot… right now I’m so busy with work and personal projects, that I wouldn’t be able of finding the moment… but I guess that it’s necessary!
    Discover at my latest post how to find the motivation to create a workout routine: Some effective tips, my favorite workout ritual, and the coolest training outfits.


  • I’ve heard a lot of good things about meditation and have been pretty interested in trying it, but I’ve always been hesitant for some reason. My mind is always so busy that meditation doesn’t really seem realistic for me, but with all of the great things I’ve read about it I think it’s finally time to give it a shot – I have a feeling it’ll be worth it.

  • McBain

    Why mindfulness meditation often doesn’t quite seem to work.. and how a minor shift of perspective can make a big difference.

    There are many articles, blogs and posts on the subject of meditation and mindfulness practices that report on people’s struggles to find the peace and calm they feel they are missing or need to cope with their modern busy lives. Much of the talk is about the old chestnut of how to quieten the so-called “monkey mind” or worse the constant voice in the head that tells us that we aren’t good enough or terrible things are going to happen to us. And then finally, there are those who struggle with troubling feelings and emotions, often associated with difficult life situations that keep arising and causing suffering, tears and anxiety.

    To try to deal with such issues, many people have turned to the increasingly popular use of mindfulness meditation practices that are promoted or available in books, on the internet and now even in smartphone apps. Formally typically involving some form of breathing meditation, such as counting breaths, the practices include guided relaxation meditations, visualisations, and yoga exercises. For the more committed there are even silent mediation retreats with teachers providing advice and guidance on methods and how to deal with some of the many challenges that can appear to prevent achieving the desired results of feeling calmer, more peaceful and even happier about yourself.

    Unfortunately, the results are not always as good as we’d hoped, they bring perhaps some temporary relief and then boom, there we are again back within our whirly mind, struggling to cope with life and not feeling that great again! For some the problem is with the practices themselves. They find it hard to concentrate, hard to count their breaths without the mind wandering off or face painful feelings or emotions welling up that they feel helpless to control.
    There is a reason for this and I want to share the idea of a very simple change in perspective and point of view which for me has made an enormous difference. So if some of the challenges above are familiar to you, please read on and give it a try.

    Here’s some background to explain the shift in perspective I am taking about.

    It is a fundamental assumption of how we conceive ourselves as human beings and live our lives that we are born as little humans into a massive universe and that as conscious beings we look out into this world that is separate from us and in which we live and breath and go about our lives. It is within that relationship between us, little me, and everyone else and the big bad world out there that most of the stress and pain and suffering comes about. This can be through our relationships with others, the challenges we face to learn in school, the stress of our jobs, our illnesses, and whatever else life seems to throw at us. In the face of all of that we feel that either we should be or wish we could be peaceful, relaxed, happy, calm and hence the need to find ways such as meditation and mindfulness to achieve those desired states to relieve the stresses of our lives.

    The clue here is in that very sense we all have that we should be calm and peaceful. Peace and quiet is something that feels good, feels right and we prefer that, at least most of us do (!), to being stressed out and unhappy. There is some part of us that notices the noise and the pain and the suffering and knows that there is an alternative, that it is possible be peaceful and quiet.

    And so when we start meditating or practising mindfulness the first thing we do is get quiet. We sit, alone or with others, in a quiet place, we stop talking, we breathe and we become still and we notice that it feels good, we want it to last. We feel very comfortable and at home in that silent stillness and we can also feel suddenly very close to those around us at that time, somehow connected, loving .

    And the reason why that feels right and so good is that that silent stillness is the very ground or source of who or what we really are and here is why.

    The fundamental assumption I stated above is not quite right! We are not little me’s looking out into a big universe that is separate from us. What we are, the “you” that you know yourself to be, the sense of “I am” is not just the consciousness of you as a single, separate human being. It IS instead the whole huge infinite universe experiencing itself through this human being, through all human beings, through all living creatures. So what you are is also what you are looking at, what you are seeing is the same you everywhere looking back at you. When you look into someone’s eyes, it is the same life force, the same consciousness looking back at you. You are seeing yourself through that other person.

    Now I invite you to sit in silence, somewhere very quiet, maybe out in nature, in a park or with a nice view and just sit with this slightly different understanding of what “you” are. Just sit with it, let it infuse your looking, how you see what’s around you. Consider the stillness, the spaciousness, the silence and see how that feels. Notice that it is always there and that you are intimately connected to it. You share the very same source. It is what you are. Notice that it is effortlessly present. Its when you stop efforting that it comes to the fore. That’s why it feels good, feels right or natural like it fits. This has always been the case, you (little you (!)) have just been too busy living your separate “little me” life to notice it.

    Now if we go back to mindfulness and meditation practices, you may find two things have changed. Firstly, from this more expansive, connected perspective the life problems that seemed so bad and pressing may just seem a little less so. This may continue to shift with time as you consider things more and more with this new perspective. Secondly, you may just find that if you approach your mindfulness practice in this way that it becomes much easier to connect and drop into the calm peaceful silence you were seeking. But this is not now as a result of effort and trying hard to stay focussed and count breaths. Its because there is an intimate recognition that that silence, that peace is what you are. It is the very ground or source of what you are and by aligning with that truth, you become instantly still and silent and can watch the “little me” ripples very easily.

    What may then happen is that you might start to notice this new perspective coming naturally throughout the day and not just something that you “do” during meditation or mindfulness practice. It may offer a new way of living and of being.

    In summary then the reason mindfulness meditation doesn’t work for many people is that they are doing it based upon a misunderstanding that undermines it and totally misses what is already present, which is in fact the peace and calm and stillness that is wanted. Mindfulness isn’t something that arises from something you do, it is what is there always when you stop doing. It is what you are. Once that is seen, not only does mindfulness meditation become easy, it can also become completely unnecessary!!

  • Great read. We find that one of the best ways for someone to truly find inner peace and tranquility is to be comfortable. We are featuring a number of posts to help beginning yoga students become comfortable with yoga and meditation. Yoga and meditation can change the world.


  • August

    Your New York Times link directs back to your page.

  • Love the blog! Perhaps a guest blog sometime?

  • While the scientific researches take their time to come out with a concrete result proving the benefit of mindful meditation, it is not so far fetched to discern that the motive and method of mindful meditation is to bring the mind to a state of stillness, learning the act of not reacting to every single thought and regulating the thoughts.

  • I’ve been meditating daily for over 17 years now and while I haven’t had a brain scan to back up any claims I can say that because of regular meditation I have seen some pretty significant shifts in my quality of life from an inner perspective. More is happening on a physical and energetic level than we know when it comes to meditation.

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