Updated: Aug 13, 2020
Scientific research into the practice of meditation has been a growing field of study over the years, and still continues to grow to this day. Below, I introduce some of the research and techniques used to demonstrate the changes and benefits that take place from a regular meditation practice
Meditation Meets Scientific Research
Whilst there is still so much to explore when it comes to studying the human brain and the benefits and changes that can take place in the mind and body through practices such as mindfulness and meditation, over the years, neuroscience and psychology have opened up areas of research and study to explain what the real benefits of this practice are, and exploring the practice in more depth.
Since meditation started to establish in the West in the 20th century, it has been a growing topic that originally seemed to be something exclusively for Buddhist Monks or “Hippies”, however since the 1990’s, the 'decade of the brain', scientific research has surged in this field, and has since illustrated the abundance of benefits associated with a regular meditation practice, yet still continues to develop. It has encouraged more people to be open-minded and curious about it and since it has grown in popularity and has shown many benefits to many people, which are now supported by science. Neuroscientists, therapists, psychologists, counsellors and health services are becoming progressively more familiar with the research behind this, and with the assistance of technology such as MRI, rCBF, MEG and EEG, this has become a very encouraging field of research.
Studies on meditation have revealed a range of benefits that can be experienced as a result of a regular practice - an emphasis on the word "regular". It is often believed that the results are all mental, however science has shown that meditation and mindfulness practice offer benefits for the mind and the body, both very important factors to our overall wellbeing and quality of life.
There are now many individuals and groups out there who are dedicating time into this discussing, researching and educating in this area of research and knowledge such as John Kabat-Zinn, H.H. the Dalai Lama, Dr David Hamilton, Gelong Thubten, the Headspace team, The Chopra Center, Sara Lazar, Sharon Salzburg, and many, many more…
Techniques Used to Demonstrate the Psychological Changes in the Brain
Research into the science of meditation and methods of demonstrating psychological changes present in the brain are made possible by various pieces of vital equipment in neuroscience and neuroimaging, such as fMRI/MRI ([functional] Magnetic Resonance Imaging), PET (Positron Emission Tomography – detects Gamma rays based on what the issued radioactive substance contacts and emits in the brain), rCBF (regional Cerebral Blood Flow), EEG (Electroencephalography) and MEG (Magnetoencephalography) Each technique can provide different information and come with their own advantages.
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging is the more common, and modern, approach to observing the human brain as it is a very accurate, detailed, and non-invasive approach. It involves using highly powerful magnets to measure brain activity and changes in brain activity, however this cannot provide a real-time demonstration of blood flow in the brain, which is where rCBF proves useful in this field (rCBF measures blood flow in the brain to demonstrate levels of cerebral activity)
A 2012 study led by Galle Desbordes, a neuroscientist at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, used fMRI/MRI to take scans on subjects who learned meditate over a two-month period, and noticed changes were evident in the brain. What was interesting is that, as the study took scans during meditation and when doing daily tasks, she’d noticed that meditation was able to steady the changes in the brain (in other words, meditation was able to encourage change in the brain even outside of the practice - Neuroplasticity) This research was prompted as a result of her personal positive experiences with meditation practice. Similarly, Sara Lazar’s research with MRI also identified changes in the brain – developed areas of the brain that are responsible for sensory process and maintaining attention.
Brain Waves and How They are Altered in a Meditative State
Brainwaves, also known as neural oscillations or brain patterns, are cycles of electrical impulses emitted by the brain. This spectrum of brainwave activity is divided into different bandwidths/states which are measured in Hertz/cycles per second.
DELTA (1 – 3Hz) Where healing and restoration takes place and regenerative for the mind and body. It is experienced in deep or dreamless sleep, physical awareness subsides, and can also be present in people in a coma or who have suffered from a brain tumour.
THETA (4 – 8Hz) Often associated with sleep REM) and experienced during deeper meditation. Our senses and awareness become harnessed to the internal and the messages originating from the brain in its resting state, and so this is where we start to experience dreams, visions and is a stepping-stone to memory and learning development, intuition and clear imagery interpretation.
ALPHA (8 – 12Hz) Experienced in fleeting moments during the day where we become harnessed on the present – conscious awareness/attention. This can be accessed by simply becoming aware of the present experience and associated most with the state of meditation. This is the state where the attention starts to focus inwards and entering a state of ‘being’
BETA (13 – 30Hz) Experienced more often that the other brainwaves in waking state. We are engaged, in the outside experience, thinking ahead, and we are predominantly in a state of ‘doing’ It can be divided into three sub-categories: Lo-Beta (12-15Hz), Beta (15-22Hz) and Hi-Beta (22-38Hz) The higher this frequency, the higher the brain activity, and the higher the levels of stress.
GAMMA (40 – 70+Hz) Originally dismissed as just being background brain noise in brain scans and in EEG, however further research has displayed that the fastest of brainwaves, as displayed in Gamma, is responsible for processing information from different regions of the brain simultaneously, helping us make sense of our life/experience(s).
Studies using electroencephalography measuring how brainwaves alter during meditation practice from Buddhist Monks to ‘everyday’ people, have demonstrated that during meditation, brain activity slowed down, alpha brainwaves became more prominent, and theta brainwaves made appearances too. Although these changes to the brainwaves became evident during meditation, it was also observed that these changes were able to remain for a period of time after the meditation took place – the more experienced the individual in meditation, the more prominent this continuation of regulated brainwave activity. Although the overall brain activity slowed down, things such as focus, awareness, alertness and attention become heightened. A measurement taken on Tibetan Buddhist Monks during a ‘loving-kindness’ meditation also showed an increase in Gamma wave activity, further highlighting how the effects on the mind from meditation are cumulative and develop through a regular practice. This ability to alter the workings of the mind and the development of brain structure over a regular experience is known as neural plasticity, something that has since become key to neuroscience research.
Physiological Changes in the Body Associated with Meditation
Meditation encourages positive physiological changes to take place in the body, such as lower blood pressure, reduced risk of heart disease, improved immune system and digestive functioning, better quality sleep, reduced effects of ageing, lower cholesterol, better breathing control and pain management.
Dr Bruce Barrett and other researchers from the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health led an experiment into whether meditation does in fact support the immune system, and what they were able to identify from the three groups of  adults (mindfulness, exercise, observation) was that the individuals in the mindfulness meditation group were able to experience significantly reduced periods of illness, and concluded that regular mindfulness practice does indeed support immune system functioning.
This covers just the surface of where research is taking place in the practice of mindfulness and meditation, and every week, a new study or piece of research emerges, and whilst there are areas that still require additional observation and research, what has surfaced over the years has become very encouraging.
Human Brainwaves Chart – Image
‘What are brain waves?’ – Brainworks
‘Five Types of Brainwaves Frequencies’ – Mental Health Daily
‘Studying the Human Brain’ – News Medical Life Sciences
‘When Science Meets Mindfulness’ – The Harvard Gazette
‘Bruce Barrett Information’ – The Department of Family Medicine and Community Health
‘Regional Cerebral Blood Flow’ - Science Direct