Measuring Meditation’s Impact on the Mind

Long-term meditators process emotions more quickly and calmly
March 5, 2020 Updated: March 19, 2020
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Meditation is an age-old practice of inner focus. In the past, it was associated with monks and sages who were on a quest for enlightenment. Today, meditation has spread to the masses as more people seek the calm and clarity that only a moment of internal quiet can provide.

One factor helping to popularize meditation is proof. For most of the 20th century, science was skeptical of such subjects. In the last few years, however, several studies have been able to validate and verify some of the benefits of meditation.

Take, for example, one of the better-studied forms of meditation: yoga. It was once a fringe activity, but now yoga studios are virtually everywhere. Many were intuitively drawn to the practice, and science has encouraged others to try it. Today, researchers have amassed enough good evidence for doctors to confidently recommend yoga to their patients.

Meditation is usually associated with stillness, but the twists and bends of a yoga routine make it more of a moving meditation. This is an activity in which the state of mind is as essential to the practice as the physical positions.

A far less studied form of moving meditation is called qigong (chee-gong). Sometimes referred to as “Chinese yoga,” people have practiced qigong for thousands of years. Qigong practice is said to lead to better health and peace of mind, but science is still unpacking the benefits it has to offer.

Just like there are several types of yoga (Hatha, Iyengar, Kundalini, and so on), there are also several types of qigong. Perhaps the best-known variety is tai chi, which looks like a graceful dance between the practitioner and an invisible flow of energy.

So what do people get from practicing these mysterious mind-body movements? A new study sheds some light with a look at another type of qigong called Falun Gong. The results are in the February 2020 edition of the journal Brain and Cognition.

Ben Bendig, Ph.D., and his team were drawn to study Falun Gong for several reasons. First, it’s a qigong practice that became very popular, very quickly, when it was first released to the Chinese public in 1992. Within seven years, there were an estimated 70 million to 100 million Falun Gong practitioners found across China. And yet, unlike with yoga, only a few studies have attempted to measure Falun Gong’s effects.

Another source of inspiration for Bendig was anecdotal evidence, which includes several reports of clearer thinking and better health among people who practice Falun Gong. In 1998, the Chinese government conducted surveys of Falun Gong practitioners across the country. They found that 98 percent of the 31,000 practitioners surveyed experienced significant health improvements soon after they began the practice. More than 90 percent reported suffering from various illnesses before practicing, and more than 70 percent experienced “complete or near-complete” recovery from their conditions.

Some have credited Falun Gong with hard to believe results; debilitating diseases and disfiguring injuries are claimed to have vanished with consistent practice. But explaining how this could possibly happen is something no study has been able to tackle.

In Bendig’s own experience with the practice, Falun Gong helped alleviate his depression and chronic pain. But he wanted evidence that the practice could demonstrate a measurable effect.

“Obviously there was a personal interest, but primarily it was because it’s such a popular qigong practice, and very little research has been done on it,” he said.

Bendig’s team focused their inquiry on the mind. They wanted to see what impact this practice had on the brain long term. They looked at two groups—one consisting of people who had just learned the Falun Gong exercises, and another group who had regularly practiced for at least two years. Both groups were given cognitive tests at the beginning of the study. Later, groups were retested immediately following a 90-minute Falun Gong exercise session.

“They did the same activity. The difference is the level of experience with that activity,” Bendig said. “Practitioners showed improved cognition, particularly for conditions that required coordination of both hemispheres of the brain. They had a huge improvement after meditating for dealing with this inter-hemispheric character that the novices did not improve.”

Better Emotional Regulation

Compared to conventional exercise routines, like cardio or weight training, Falun Gong exercises are soft and slow. There is some gentle stretching and an exercise in which the hands move in a circuitous pattern around the body. Some postures are held for extended periods. The eyes remain closed throughout the exercises, while instrumental Chinese music plays in the background.

Both groups in the study performed the same gentle movements to the same music, so why did novices do comparatively poorly on cognitive tests? While the experienced group was more familiar with the physical routine, Bendig speculates that their advantage comes more from the mind than the body.

An essential part of practicing Falun Gong is in trying to maintain a clear mind. Unlike some meditative practices, there is no focus on the breath or any deliberate mental activity such as reciting a mantra. While the physical movements are easy to pick up, getting the mind into this focused relaxation state can take years to master and may even be disorienting at first.

“The practitioners were better at using this. Whereas the novices, the more relaxed they were, the worse they did,” Bendig said.

Meditation is traditionally seen as a way to see through the distractions and attachments always grabbing at our attention, and there is evidence to validate this claim. Studies have shown that meditators process emotions differently and are better than non-meditators at emotional regulation. Bendig’s study adds to a trend that shows meditators may be able to process emotions faster and are less distracted by them compared to non-meditators, resulting in less interference with cognitive tasks.

“My guess was that practitioners would be less influenced by negative emotions, but they weren’t influenced by positive emotional cues either,” Bendig said. “The positive emotional cues were too distracting to novices, but somehow practitioners were not distracted by it. I wasn’t necessarily expecting that. It shows that, in general, practitioners can regulate their emotions better.”

Of course, practicing Falun Gong involves more than qigong exercises. Seasoned practitioners also strive for a high moral standard when going about the rest of their day; the heart of the practice is about following the universal principles of truth, compassion, and tolerance. But just how much this factor adds to the cognitive advantages shown in Bendig’s study is not yet known.

One take away from this study is a lesson in patience. If you tried meditation but became frustrated because you weren’t able to achieve tranquility right away, give it a bit more practice.

“This is something that has meaningful effects for people,” said Bendig.

Follow Conan on Twitter: @ConanMilner