Originally published November 17 2012
Meditation changes the way your brain processes emotions
by J. D. Heyes
(NaturalNews) A new study has found that those who participate in an eight-week meditation training program can have measurable effects on how their brains function, even when they are not actively meditating.
Scientists and experts at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Boston University (BU), and several other research centers, writing in the November issue of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, said they also found differences in effects based on the specific type of meditation participants were practicing.
"The two different types of meditation training our study participants completed yielded some differences in the response of the amygdala -- a part of the brain known for decades to be important for emotion -- to images with emotional content," said Gaelle Desbordes, PhD, a research fellow at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH and at the BU Center for Computational Neuroscience and Neural Technology, corresponding author of the report. "This is the first time that meditation training has been shown to affect emotional processing in the brain outside of a meditative state."
Current study supports previous hypotheses
A number of previous studies have been supportive of a hypothesis in the scientific community that meditation training improves a practitioners' emotional regulation.
Neuroimaging studies have found that meditation training tends to decrease activation of the amygdala, the structure at the base of the brain known to have a role in processing memory and emotion. However, such changes were only seen among study participants who were actively meditating.
The current study, though, aimed to test the hypothesis that meditation training could also produce a generalized reduction in amygdala response to emotional stimuli, which can be measured by functional MRI - magnetic resonance imaging.
Participants previously enrolled in a larger study into the effects of two forms of meditation, based at Emory University in Atlanta.
"Healthy adults with no experience meditating participated in eight-week courses in either mindful attention meditation - the most commonly studied form that focuses on developing attention and awareness of breathing, thoughts and emotions - and compass meditation, a less-studied form that includes methods designed to develop loving kindness and compassion for oneself and for others," Science Daily reported.
A control group, meanwhile, took part in an eight-week course about health education.
Within three weeks of beginning the training and three weeks after completing it, 12 participants from each of the three groups traveled to Boston for fMCI imaging at a state-of-the-art facility. Brain scans were performed as the volunteers were shown a series of 216 different images, or 108 per session, of people in situations that depicted positive, negative or neutral emotional content.
The concept of meditation was not mentioned to participants during pre-imaging instructions. Afterward, researchers confirmed that participants had not meditated while they were in the scanner.
Participants also completed assessments of any symptoms of anxiety and depression before and after the training program.
Healthy minds from healthy meditation
The brain scans of those in the mindful attention group after training showed a decline in activation of the right amygdala in response to all images, which supports the hypothesis that meditation can improve emotional stability and response to stress.
In the compassion meditation group, right amygdala activity also fell off in response to positive or neutral images.
However, among those who reported practicing compassion meditation most often outside of the training sessions, right amygdala activity showed an increase in response to negative images, all of which depicted some form of human suffering.
Researchers reported no significant changes in the control group or in the left amygdala of any of the study's participants.
"We think these two forms of meditation cultivate different aspects of mind," Desbordes said. "Since compassion meditation is designed to enhance compassionate feelings, it makes sense that it could increase amygdala response to seeing people suffer."
Continuing, Desbordes added" "Increased amygdala activation was also correlated with decreased depression scores in the compassion meditation group, which suggests that having more compassion towards others may also be beneficial for oneself. Overall, these results are consistent with the overarching hypothesis that meditation may result in enduring, beneficial changes in brain function, especially in the area of emotional processing."
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