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How Does Meditation Work?

By Matt Brignall
April 15, 2011
File under: Illness Prevention, Natural Health


Two new studies have helped to fill in gaps in our understanding of how meditation affects key neurological functions. Taken together, these studies appear to support a broader use of simple, relaxation based exercises.

The first of these two studies looked at the effect of a meditation exercise on pain perception in young and healthy adults. In a series of four 20 minute training sessions, these volunteers were trained in a technique called mindfulness meditation. This technique uses a focus on the act of breathing to induce a relaxation state.

Both before and after this training session, the study participants were tested for their ability to withstand treatment with a heat probe while simultaneously undergoing an MRI exam (I hope the subjects were well paid for this). Through use of the meditation technique, the participants were able to reduce their experience of pain intensity by 40%.

The MRI showed significant differences in activity in multiple areas of the brain. Striking changes were seen in two areas that help sense and respond to pain stimuli. Changes were also seen in an area known as the limbic system, an area that controls many body processes that occur below the level of consciousness.

In the second study, young healthy volunteers were taught a mindfulness meditation technique (again, focused on breathing pattern) in a single session. Then, they were asked to play a very difficult video game to induce a stress response. Half of the group performed meditation exercises before the game, while the other half performed them afterward. Another group of volunteers played the game without using any meditation activity.

There were several significant findings in this study, but I found two most important. The first was that the group who did meditation prior to playing the game had effects related to meditation therapy that directly counteracted the effects of stress on objective measures of physiology.

More interesting, though, was the effect on learning. Normally, a little bit of stress can actually enhance the ability to learn. Based on demonstrated skill in this particular video game, meditation did not reduce learning capacity in any way. So, in effect, the meditation exercise reduced the negative effect of stress while retaining its positive benefit.

If there is a surprise to be found in these studies, it is that the effects of meditation on physiology were so pronounced with such little training effort. I find one of the barriers to using relaxation techniques in the clinic is that patients perceive these techniques as being difficult and time-consuming. These studies should remind us that they really aren’t.

Reliable research models to assess mind-body techniques are nearly impossible to apply in a clinical trial setting, so these results probably need to be interpreted as part of a larger body of research on these interventions. But as we continue to learn more about the effect of relaxation on critical brain physiology, we see a consistent pattern suggesting multiple benefits. You could argue that meditation is the oldest and still most widely used therapy that is today classified under the alternative medicine umbrella. It is heartening to see research so consistently supporting its use.

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