Does Meditation Really Change Lives?

As I noted in my last post, I’ve become increasingly curious about meditation and the benefits it confers to those who have cultivated the practice. So I ran across another book that sparked my interest – Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson.

The authors met as graduate students in complementary fields – Goleman in psychology and Davidson in neuroscience. They both got into meditation as students and continued their practices for decades. Both saw a multitude of positive changes in their lives as a function of their deep commitment to the practice. This experience motivated them to collaborate on an exhaustive review of evidence-based research to unearth proven benefits of meditation.

researchGoleman and Davidson applied rigorous standards to the studies that they included in their review. They devoted a fair amount of time discussing the ways in which studies may be poorly designed and/or produce untrustworthy results. For example, self-reporting often produces biased or skewed results. Benefits ascribed to meditation could be a function of expectation (e.g., “Everyone says they feel more peaceful when they meditate, so I guess I do, too”), the experience of social bonding in a class, or the enthusiasm of the instructor.

Goleman and Davidson zeroed in on what happens in the individual’s brain in response to meditation. They found transformation in the neural pathways resulting in: (i) less reaction to disturbing events; (ii) elevated compassion and empathy; (iii) increased attention; and (v) improved sense of self. For example, highly experienced Zen masters bear more pain than the control subjects and display little activity in the executive, evaluative, and emotional areas of the brain, all of which typically “flare” when exposed to stressors. The Zen masters experience pain; they just didn’t react to it.

Experienced meditators also showed enlarged brain regions as follows:

  • Insula, which attunes us to our internal state and emotional self-awareness
  • Somatomotor areas, which are the cortical hubs for sensing touch and pain
  • Parts of the prefrontal cortex associated with paying attention
  • Regions of the cingulate cortex instrumental in self-regulation
  • Orbitofrontal cortex, also implicated in self-regulation

Of course, the authors acknowledge that such measurements may also be impacted by diet, exercise, sleep habits, stress, and other health factors. Long-time meditators may have healthier lifestyles that contribute to their brain function.

Long-term mindfulness training has also been associated with lower inflammation and a calming of immune response. It increases the enzyme telomerase which has been linked to a reduction in cellular aging. It has also been associated with a decrease in depression, anxiety, and pain.

One big caveat regarding all of the aforementioned benefits: It takes LOTS of practice to realize the systemic benefits. At 1,000 to 10,000 hours of accumulated practice, there are neural and hormonal indicators of lessened stress reactivity and strengthened emotional regulation. Moreover, it’s not just the number of logged hours; it’s how well the practitioner engages the practice. Intentional practice requires expert coaching tied to the needs of the individual. There’s also strong evidence that periodic retreats plays a role in boosting one’s realization of the benefits of practice.

The good news: Anyone can do it. And even if one doesn’t attain mastery, a consistent practice can promote loving kindness, improve attention span, and instill feelings of well-being. The trick is to find a practice that works for you and stick with it.