Mindfulness Meditation and Brain Health

Swati Desai, PhD, LCSW

Dr. Richard Davidson, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, was named as one of the hundred influential people in the world in 2006 by Time magazine. This very influential researcher who was known for his work on neuroscience of emotions was invited to visit His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet in 1992 in Dharamsala, India. Dalai Lama asked him why scientists did not study the neuroscience of positive emotions (typically associated with practice of meditation) to which Dr. Davidson did not have a good answer; however, this visit changed his life. He became very invested in finding the neurological effects of mindfulness meditation and other Buddhist contemplative traditions on the brain. He was impressed by Dalai Lama’s willingness to test the Buddhist tenets and practices by using Western scientific methods and to let go of these beliefs if they were scientifically proved wrong. This motivated Dr. Davidson to become the bridge between Western neuroscience with its newly emerging advanced neuroimaging tools and the mindfulness meditation practices.

Since then, there have been several projects studying the effects of mindfulness meditation on our brain structure. Although the field is in its preliminary stage, the initial results confirm what the ancient wisdom proposes: your cognition, empathy, connectedness, ability to deal with stress can be improved by developing a practice of mindfulness. In fact, the brain structure changes in just about 8 weeks of practice, 5 times a week, 20 minutes each time. If you continue the practice, the changes will be sustained and will become more pronounced.

To summarize some of the results found in brain structure studies, the two areas strongly activated upon meditation practice are: temporal junction and insula. Temporal junction generates perspectives for us and insula monitors the bidirectional communication between the brain and the body and can influence the functions of the body. With long term meditation practice, the high amplitude gamma waves seem to be highly synchronized in all different parts of the brain. These waves are associated with forming new synoptic connections in the brain. These types of observations in the brain, along with tests to check cognition, empathy, connectedness, and stress reduction before and after the meditation practice, make researchers believe that mindfulness meditation helps the brain to have better integration between left/right side of the brain, acute awareness, fuller perspective on things, and better regulation of bodily responses to emotions. All this can lead to better cognition, empathy, connectedness, and stress reduction.

The other question relevant to us is how does this affect aging? Research studies have been conducted to study positive effect of mindfulness training for successful aging. They show that older individuals can learn mindfulness and improve emotional regulation and self-perception.

So far I have described all good effects of mindfulness meditations on our brain and on the process of aging. What we have not described is what mindfulness meditation is! Mindfulness meditation is a simple practice of paying full attention to our breath, or body sensations, or feelings, or our obstructive thoughts, without judgment or analysis, but in a simple observational style. Developing a practice is not as simple as the definition sounds. In order to establish a practice of meditation, find a class or a teacher at first and then join a sitting meditation group if you can.

There are several classes in Los Angeles, including Insight LA and MARC at UCLA. Here at Akasha, I conduct one-on-one meditation sessions for those with that as a preference. We also have ongoing sitting meditation groups if you want to follow up your teachings with a group experience. If you wish to make an appointment with me for learning to meditate, please email me at meditate@swatidesai.com.