- Paula Cristina Azevedo
This is Your Brain on Meditation
I enjoy reading research. Am I weird? Yes. It’s probably not normal to tell friends, “No, I can’t have brunch with you today, because I plan to sip on a cup of hot tea while reading the latest comprehensive meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies on the effects of meditation.” What?!? Seriously, who says that? I know...don’t judge :)
All joking aside, in the last decade a wealth of research and even research journals dedicated solely towards the pursuit of understanding meditation and mindfulness are available. The interest in mediation and mindfulness practices has increased so much that even mainstream news outlets, such as the Forbes (2017), Time Magazine (2017), National Post (2014), Science Journal (2013), and The Washington Post (2013), are reporting on research and programs about meditation. Research about meditation from various disciplines is providing researchers, doctors, psychologists, educators, and even CEOs some answers and ideas on how to incorporate mindfulness practice into their personal and professional lives. As a result, many hospitals, schools, teachers, and business are creating programs that support meditation and mindful practices. The motives of leaders and organization to incorporate such interventions vary and should be questioned, but for the purpose of this blog post I’m going to focus on what researchers are finding in their studies in hope to inform you on the effect meditation and mindfulness practices may have in your life. Some of the most fascinating research about meditation is coming from neuroimaging studies of brains. So, in this post I am going to describe the latest research on the impact meditation practice has on the brain and describe the potential implication for Education.
Meta-analysis on the impact of meditation on the brain
Neuroscientists are learning a great deal about the impact meditation has on the brain by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow. However, so many questions remain unanswered due to the complexity of the brain and scientific limitations. Bocci, Piccardi, and Guariaglia (2015) provided an interesting insight on neuroscience research by conducting a meta-analysis of MRI studies focusing on mediation. They found that the studies fit into three categories of investigations: 1) requiring participants to undergo a fMRI scan while meditating, 2) comparing functional and metabolic changes in the brain of participants who have completed mediation training or are expert meditators to a control group, and 3) studies that compared structural brain modifications (focusing on grey matter or neuronal cell bodies changes) of expert meditators to a control group. In this meta-analysis the researchers included 110 fMRI experimental studies on meditation, which in total included 581 participants with varying experience with meditation.
What areas of the brain are activated?
The researchers used activation likelihood estimation (ALE) to analyze previous research on the probability of an area of the brain would be activated during meditation. Bocci, Piccardi, and Guariaglia found the following after running the analysis that the areas of the brain responsible for personality, communication, visual processing, memory, and meditation can increase cells and brain density. I’ll further describe the findings below.
Meditation lights up the frontal lobe
Participants while meditating in a fMRI activated areas of the brain spanning from the occipital lobe (located in the bottom, back part of the cortex), which is responsible for processing visual information from the eyes to the frontal lobe (the front portion of the brain), which controls cognitive skills, such as emotional expression, problem solving, memory, language, judgment, and sexual behaviour. Basically, the frontal lobe is the “control panel” of human personality and communication.
Image from https://www.thinglink.com/scene/777496211732037634
Meditation increases brain function
Meditation practices were associated with increased activation in a wide network of areas including: bilateral middle frontal gyrus https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gyrus (responsible for the processing of higher information, the middle frontal gyrus accounts for a little over 30 percent of the surface area on the frontal lobe and located in Brodmann Area (BA) 46), precentral gyrus (primary motor area, which controls the voluntary movements of skeletal muscles and located in BA 4), anterior cingulate cortex (controls a wide variety of autonomic functions like regulating blood pressure, and heart rate. Also linked to higher-level functions, such as reward anticipation decision-making, ethics, impulse control, and emotions. Located in BA 24, 32, and 33.) insular cortex (associated with consciousness and functions like compassion, empathy, perception, motor-control, self-awareness, interpersonal experience. Located in BA 13, 14, 15,16), and claustrum (involved in widespread coordination of the cerebral cortex, resulting in the seamless quality of conscious experience). In the left hemisphere of the brain meditation increased activation in the inferior frontal gyrus (associated with language comprehension and located in BA 45), precuneus (responsible for self-awareness, located in BA 7), caudate nucleus (involved in a very complex feedback loop that prepares and aids in movement of the limbs), and thalamus (responsible for relaying information from the sensory receptors to proper areas of the brain where it can be processed) . In the right hemisphere meditation increased activation in medial frontal gyrus (evidence that it plays a role in executive mechanisms), parahippocampal gyrus (located in BA 27 and 35 and plays a role in memory encoding and retrieval), middle occipital gyrus (located in BA 18 and deals with visual processing), inferior parietal lobule (related to perception of emotions in facial stimuli, and interpretation of sensory information and is located in BA 39 and 40), and lentiform nucleus (responsible for maintaining muscle tone and muscle movement).
Brodmann Area (map of the brain) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brodmann_area
Meditation increases density of brain cells
Finally, meditation is associated with increased grey matter (or cell bodies) volume. In other words, meditation is associated with an increased density of brain cells. The increased grey matter volume was found in the frontal lobe at the right anterior cingulate cortex (studies attribute the anterior cingulate cortex to error detection, a theory that an error can be detected while the brain tries to correct for the error, anticipation of tasks, attention, motivation, and located BA 24, 32, and 33), and the left middle frontal gyrus(decision making) and medial frontal gyrus ( some evidence that it plays a role in executive mechanisms, located in BA 46). Meditators’ grey matter volume also increased in the precuneus (responsible for self-awareness, located in BA 7), and fusiform gyrus (located in BA 37, it is associated with processing color information, facial recognition, and word recognition, but there is still dispute on its specific function), and right thalamus (responsible for relaying information from the sensory receptors to proper areas of the brain where it can be processed).
Neuroscientists agree that meditation practice positively impacts the brain and may have an impact on meditators daily lives. For instance, the occipital to the frontal lobes were highly active during meditation, which are associated with self-regulation, self-awareness, problem-solving, adaptive behaviour, and interoception (or the signalling and perception of internal bodily sensations). In addition, the insular cortex, premotor cortex and superior frontal gyrus were active which all relate to self-awareness and cognitive control over and awareness of behaviour. This is not a surprising finding since meditation is an active state of awareness, especially internal awareness of self at the present moment. The researchers found that there was a wide network of areas activated in expert mediators rather than the control group, which included the activation of cognitive areas associated with memory formation and retrieval, problem solving and attention and activation in areas related to emotions. They consider that the increased grey matter volume of meditators may account for meditators ability to self-regulate, maintain focus, problem-solve, and adaptive behavioural response under changing context. However, it is important to point out that scientists cannot determine if the increased grey matter and the behaviours can be correlated to mediation or if it is due to individuals’ predisposition. However, Holzel and colleagues (2011) found that participants who never mediated before had an increased concentration of grey matter after receiving mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) training . Structural changes were also found in those that had been practicing meditation for longer, specifically associated with changes in the posterior cingulate cortex and precuneus, which are associated with self-awareness, self-regulation, and memory.
How does neuroscience research relate to education?
The fields of neuroscience and education are two separate fields, but many researchers are joining with their colleagues from these different fields and building connections between how the brain works, especially in children and teenagers, and how this impacts their learning, which of course affects how we teach. The research from neuroscience can shed some light on how the brains of students who have a learning disability, such as dyslexia, or students with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) work and how parents and educators can work with children with such conditions.
Neuroscience research on meditation can also support educators and parents who are interested in incorporating such practices into their own lives and/or with children and teenagers. It also can inform neuroscientists on the function of certain areas of the brain that are still disputed. In particular, Bocci, Piccardi, and Guariaglia’s meta-analysis provides interesting insight into the effect meditation has on the function and physical structure of the brain. As a result, educators who are interested in incorporating meditation and mindfulness practices have research supporting the positive impact of such practices on cognitive and emotional functions in the brain. Based on the findings of the meta-analysis, meditation could be especially helpful for children and teenagers to improve self-regulation, self-awareness, external awareness, improved focus, improved memory, an increase in empathy, and even improve communication skills. However, it is important to be aware that the studies used in the meta-analysis were conducted on healthy adults and not on children and teenagers and therefore there is little information on the impact of meditation and mindfulness practices on children and teenagers’ brains. The brains of children and teenagers are at its most vulnerable stage due to the height of changes and connections their brains are making. That’s why it’s so easy for children to learn additional languages with perfect accents because their brains are rapidly building connections. In addition, there are not enough longitudinal research studies to fully understand the long-term impacts of meditation on the structure and function of the brain. Nevertheless, there is compelling evidence based on the meta-analysis that there are positive effects on the brains of meditators.
The findings support the purpose of mindfulness and meditation practice, which asks us to return to the present, to our bodies, emotions, situations as it is now, and to be curious and explore the sensations we feel in the present moment. The studies beautifully illustrate that those that practice meditation and mindfulness regularly can train their brain and even change the physical structures of the brain in order to be able to be more aware of the present. As educators, we know that being fully aware and present is essential to our teaching practice. So, if we become more mindful perhaps we can elevate our teaching practice.
Boccia, M., Piccardi, L., Guariglia, P. (2015). The meditative mind: A comprehensive meta-analysis of MRI studies. BioMed Research International, 2015, p. 1-11. http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2015/419808
Holzel, B. K., Carmody, J. Vangel, M., et al. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain graymatter density. Psychiatry Research—Neuroimaging, 191(1), p. 36–43,