Meditation leaves detectable traces

February 26, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

Meditation has not unshackled itself from its religious and spiritual image and related practices. Although many people have acknowledged the measurable effects of meditation on thoughts and health.

It can have long term effects on the brain – however large effort is required for that

A warehouse, bare walls and cold light illuminates the stack of wooden boxes. The task is to collect all green glasses that are put all over the boxes. But suddenly a large number of spiders appear. They have this nasty skin and crawl everywhere and of course they stick on the walls. But the best is yet to come: obvious fear is bad but consider a fear that is yet to develop. Such fear is even worse and is displayed by a spider that seems to struggle with the weight of a green glass. After a few seconds it can liberate itself from the glass and is heading towards the person a few yards away. The body is frightened.

However, the goal of this setting, within the famous Max-Planck-Institutes for cognitive neuroscience is not to investigate phobia or anxiety, but to investigate how meditation changes the brain. That is the task of brain scholar Tanja Singer and her colleagues. The constructed nightmare, which is internally referred to as Room 101 is part of the research project. The research participants see the constructed environment via a helmet that projects it on to their retina. The complex gadget tries to identify whether the mental training has helped participants to regulate their emotions.

As been mentioned, many people see meditation as a religious practice, associating Tibetan monks in red dresses from the Himalaya. In fact, meditation is a psychological technique, which provides every person with the skill set to influence one´s own mind and health. 

It´s not whether there is a effect but rather which effect is their

That meditation leaves traces in the brain is widely acknowledged. The psychologist Richard Davidson from the University of Wisconsin – Madison was able to demonstrate already in 2007 that a meditation training spanned over three months improved the attention of the participants. They recognized numbers on a display, which were hide between a large number of letters quicker than before they underwent the mental training. Adding to the scientific literature, Sara Lazar from the General Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts reported, that meditation is responsible for changes in the morphology of the brain.  En detail: the amygdale which is responsible for the control of anxiety shrinks. That has been shown through scans of the brain. Also the grey matter in brain areas who are associated with empathy has grown. Richard Davidson comments on this: “the brain is able to develop, just like we are able to learn a new sport, we are able to train our attention and empathy, that is no voodoo.”

The German scholar Tanja Singer agrees: “the question is not whether meditation has an effect but rather which effect is there, what´s its size and how long does it take until its recognizable?” That´s her research project in a nutshell, which involves 17 professional meditation counselors and 160 participants from Leipzig and Berlin. The participants engaged in meditation sessions over a time span of nine month including meditation at least at six days per week. While at the same time their mental and physical status was checked. The scholars were interested in stress level which manifests itself through cortisol. Also in issues alike: how often do participants cooperate with each other in tailored computer games? How happy are they and what´s their heartbeat when they walk through room 101? They also underwent five brain scans.

It seems that the meditator feels less pain

The project at the Max-Planck-Institutes is typical for a research stream that is seriously interested in meditation. And that is necessary, as it’s a field that in the past was dominated by beliefs rather than by evidence. Especially the medical effects were subject to investigation before, but they lacked sufficient participants and showed some methodological weaknesses. Resulting in a controversial discussion of the results. An analysis which was a result of an inquiry of the US Health ministry concluded in 2007 that the data do not allow unquestionable conclusions about the effects of meditation.

Recently in December 2014 an analysis of the popular Cochrane – Group investigated whether coronary heart diseases can be prevented by transcendental meditation. The method has been developed in the 50´s by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who was one of the Guru´s of the Beatles and has gained a huge popularity from that fact. Proponents meditated twice a day for about 20 minutes, while chanting a word with their eyes closed. The results showed that only four studies with 430 participants were sufficient, to be considered at all. Edzard Ernst, a former professor for alternative medicine said:”from my perspectives these were just fanatics”. One of Cochrane – authors added: “other variations of meditation, have a better data base and are much more reliable, take for example the mindfulness meditation”.