Meditation has aroused so much interest in the last couple of decades accompanied by the realization of the complimentary importance of west and east philosophical approaches. In western philosophy, a focus on the parts of a whole and the logical interconnections of these parts have been the main discussion points. On the other hand, eastern philosophy owns a wholistic attitude and appreciates the organic unity. Currently, there is a growing wave of research by the western minded scientists on how eastern originated meditation works. To render meditation scientifically investigable, western world has been trying to come up to a consensus on the operational definition of the meditation. This duty is not as simple as it sounds, instead, it might be the most challenging aspect of the meditation research. Fox and Cahn defined meditation as following: a family of mental training practices aimed at monitoring and regulating attention, perception, emotion, and physiology (e.g., respiration or level of arousal). As acknowledged by the authors, this definition is very useful when considering the measurability and the generality of the meditation, however, such a definition lacks the deep components such as metaphysical insights of reality and self as well as the ultimate goal of enlightenment or liberation. As we already see the segmentation in the definition, the research has been conducted in a manner of the decomposed effects of meditation in discrete aspects such as pain regulation or immune system. In the following, we will have a look at the findings regarding the effect of meditation on these different biological and cognitive processes.
To understand how meditation can be effective on biological and psychological well-being, we should start with plasticity. Plasticity refers to the changes happening in the brain in response to experience. These changes might be the formation of new synaptic connections between the neurons or even the generation of new neuronal cells. In several neuroscientific studies, insula, the brain region which is thought to be responsible for the interoceptive awareness of the body (awareness of respiration, heartbeat, abdominal sensations etc.) was found to be altered. Considering that introspection, awareness, and emotional control are key aspects that meditators should master in, alterations in insula may reflect an integration of autonomic, affective, and cognitive processes. Concordantly, the brain region in charge of exteroceptive awareness of the body (touch, pain etc.), somatosensory cortex, showed high level of alterations. For example, in one study, an enhanced top down alpha rhythm modulation in primary somatosensory cortex was found to help practitioners to better detect and regulate their mind in case of any wandering from the sensory focus. Combining these internal and external focus of awareness and attention, one can infer a potential role of these findings in being present in the ‘now’, a very famous concept in many teachings.
Another interesting biological effect of meditation is on the immune system and aging. In a study in the US, a group of participants in a work environment was divided into two groups and one group received a mindfulness meditation training for 8 weeks. In the end of this period, both groups were vaccinated with influenza vaccine. Results revealed an increase of left sided anterior activation, which is associated with positive affect in the meditation group compared to the control. More interestingly, there was a significant increase in antibody titers to influenza vaccine among the subjects in the meditation group compared with the controls. The magnitude of this increase in the antibody titers to the vaccine was predicted by the magnitude of increase in the left sided activation. These findings suggest that even a short period of mindfulness training is sufficient to produce significant effects in the functioning of the brain and promote positive affect in addition to the positive changes in the immune system. A second study investigating the potential effects of meditation in aging also revealed promising results. In 2007, Pagnoni & Cekic compared the brain grey matter volume between a group of long-term Zen meditation practitioners and age/sex matched controls in an age scale of 25 to 50. A sizable negative correlation between age and total grey matter volume was present for the control group, however, such a correlation was found to be absent for the Zen meditators. These results mean that the brains of 50-year-old Zen meditators are not different than their much younger counterparts, whereas in the control group, less grey matter volume is observed with an increase in age.
Nevertheless, maybe the most sensational modulatory effect of meditation is on the pain regulation. Almost everyone has probably seen the Buddhist monks walking on hot coals. Yet, we do not have a proper idea how they manage to do it without burning themselves or squirming in pain. In order to understand this, we should first start talking about pain itself. Primarily, there is the purely sensory aspect of pain and beyond this is the experience of pain which is also called nociception, the point from which the subjective experience of pain arises. The experience of pain is composed of thoughts that we relate the pain to our self, negative emotional valuations of the sensory experience of the pain and distress. There are several neuroscientific findings attempting to explain the underlying mechanism of the effect of meditation in pain regulation even though they are sometimes contradictory. For example, in one experiment comparing the pain intensity and unpleasantness ratings of a meditating group and control subjects, the results showed that meditating group reported lower pain unpleasantness by 57% and lower pain intensity by 40%. A decreased activation in primary somatosensory cortex was found in the meditation condition. The meditation-induced reductions in pain intensity were associated with the increase in the activation of the anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula, regions responsible for cognitive regulation of nociception. On the other hand, the reductions in pain unpleasantness were associated with orbitofrontal cortex activation, the region involved in reframing the contextual evaluation of sensory events, as well as a deactivation in thalamic regions, which may serve as a gating mechanism for modifying interactions between afferent input and executive order brain regions. Contradicting on some aspects, another study on pain regulation showed that Zen meditators had reduced activation in executive, evaluative and emotion areas during pain (prefrontal cortex, amygdala, hippocampus), modulated by the amount of their experience. Additionally, Zen meditators had increased activation in primary pain processing regions (anterior cingulate cortex, thalamus, insula). The functional connectivity between these cognitive-evaluative and sensory-discriminatory dimensions of pain is found to be reduced in meditators and this reduction is found to predict the lower levels of pain sensitivity. The fundamental difference in the interpretation of the findings of these two studies lies in the active or passive manner in pain regulation. The second study suggests a more ‘no appraisal’ than ‘reappraisal’ emotion regulation technique, possibly allowing practitioners to view painful stimuli more neutrally in a more passive manner.
The points mentioned above are only just few examples of findings in meditation research. Meditation has been found to have significant effects on many cognitive processes such as attention as well as physiological and psychological health. The underlying mechanisms are not yet fully understood and requires more research. One common finding in all of the meditation research is that the meditation has positive effects or at least never negative. The possible implications in mental health promise a very high impact. To conclude, we should remember the deeper definition of meditation by Vinod D. Deshmukh, to be able to fully grasp how wide the boundaries of the potential utilization of meditation. “Meditation is an art of being serene and alert in the present moment, instead of constantly struggling to change or to become. It is an art of efficient management of attentional energy with total engagement (poornata, presence, mindfulness) or disengagement (shunyata, silence, emptiness).”