Meditation: Even A Little Helps

-- Buddhist Insight meditation, practiced 40 minutes a day, literally changed the structure of the brain, according to a study by researchers from Yale, Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That 2005 study was based on functional magnetic resonance imaging that showed an increase in thickness of regions of the brain that are important for sensory, cognitive and emotional processing. The changes are expected to be "long lasting," the researchers said.

-- Brain imaging at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2008 showed that brain circuits used to detect emotions and feelings were "dramatically changed" in subjects who had extensive experience practicing compassion meditation. That suggests we can train ourselves to be compassionate, much like we train to play a musical instrument. The participants in this study, by the way, were Tibetan monks with at least 10,000 hours of meditation.

-- Can it reduce pain? Yes, according to research in London involving 12 monks with 30 years experience. Brain scans showed the monks had a 40 to 50 percent lower brain response to pain than 12 persons who had no training in transcendental meditation. But here's the surprising finding. When the 12 untrained persons were trained for five months, they also lowered their pain response by a comparable 40-50 percent.

Continued Practice Needed for Long-Term Stable Changes

Numerous other studies have shown real physical changes ranging from enhanced immunity to a slowing of the aging-related atrophy of some areas of the brain.

So this is big stuff, but in a telephone interview Zeidan offered a few words of caution.

"By no means will four days of practice be it. This just suggests that the effect of meditation can be directly perceived and there are some short term benefits," he said.

"We were really surprised with the findings. There are some dramatic differences in cognition, but it's kind of like going to the gym and working on a bicep. You go to the gym four days and you might be sore, there might be some muscle strength increase, but that's it. If you stop, your muscle is going to go back.

"So you have to continue to practice to experience more long term stable changes," he added. But you don't have to become a monk.

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