By Craig Weatherby
Ample amounts of research prove that meditation eases stress.
But what about emotional responses to external emotional stimuli, such as negative comments or images?
A new study shows that eight weeks of daily meditation moderated people’s responses to emotion-eliciting images … even after they stopped meditating.
The researchers also found differences in those effects based on the specific type of meditation practiced.
“The two different types of meditation training our study participants completed yielded some differences in the response of the amygdala – a part of the brain known for decades to be important for emotion – to images with emotional content,” said lead author Gaëlle Desbordes, Ph.D. “This is the first time that meditation training has been shown to affect emotional processing in the brain outside of a meditative state. (MGH 2012)
Several previous studies have indicated that meditation improves peoples’ responses to emotional stimuli.
And prior brain-imaging studies showed that meditation appeared to decrease activation of the amygdala … a brain structure deeply involved in memory and emotion.
But those changes were only observed while study participants were meditating.
The new study was designed to test the idea that meditation could produce a lasting reduction in amygdala response to emotional stimuli, as measured by “functional magnetic resonance imaging” (fMRI).
Clinical trial finds lasting emotional benefits from meditation
Scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Boston University (BU), and other centers recruited healthy adults with no experience meditating for an eight-week meditation regimen using either of two types of meditation (Desbordes G et al. 2012):
Mindful attention meditation is the most commonly studied form, and that focuses on developing attention and awareness of breathing, thoughts and emotions.
Compassion meditation is a less-studied form that includes methods designed to develop loving kindness and compassion for oneself and for others.
A control group participated in an eight-week health education course.
Within three weeks before beginning and three weeks after completing the training, 12 participants from each group traveled to Boston for fMRI brain imaging.
Brain scans were performed as the volunteers viewed a series of 216 different images – 108 per session – of people in situations with positive, negative or neutral emotional content.
Meditation was not mentioned in pre-imaging instructions to participants, and the investigators confirmed afterwards that the volunteers had not meditated while in the scanner.
The participants also completed assessments of symptoms of depression and anxiety before and after the training programs.
Results showed lasting emotional control benefits
Study participants who completed either eight-week meditation course showed reduced activity in the right amygdala in response to emotional images, even when not meditating.
In the mindful attention group, the after-training brain scans showed a decrease in activation in the right amygdala in response to all images, supporting the hypothesis that meditation can improve emotional stability and response to stress.
In the compassion meditation group, right amygdala activity also decreased in response to positive or neutral images. But among those who reported practicing compassion meditation most frequently outside of the training sessions, right amygdala activity tended to increase in response to negative images – all of which depicted some form of human suffering.
No significant changes were seen in the control group or in the left amygdala of any study participants.
“We think these two forms of meditation cultivate different aspects of mind,” Desbordes explained (MGH 2012).
She went on to make two key observations (MGH 2012):
- “Since compassion meditation is designed to enhance compassionate feelings, it makes sense that it could increase amygdala response to seeing people suffer.”
- “Increased amygdala activation was also correlated with decreased depression scores in the compassion meditation group, which suggests that having more compassion towards others may also be beneficial for oneself.”
Her conclusion was encouraging for those who meditate … or need help controlling their emotions: “Overall, these results are consistent with the overarching hypothesis that meditation may result in enduring, beneficial changes in brain function, especially in the area of emotional processing.” (MGH 2012)
Desbordes G, Negi LT, Pace TW, Wallace BA, Raison CL, Schwartz EL. Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Front Hum Neurosci. 2012;6:292. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00292. Epub 2012 Nov 1.
Lee TM, Leung MK, Hou WK, Tang JC, Yin J, So KF, Lee CF, Chan CC. Distinct neural activity associated with focused-attention meditation and loving-kindness meditation. PLoS One. 2012;7(8):e40054. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0040054. Epub 2012 Aug 15.
Lutz A, Brefczynski-Lewis J, Johnstone T, Davidson RJ. Regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion by compassion meditation: effects of meditative expertise. PLoS One. 2008 Mar 26;3(3):e1897.
Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Meditation appears to produce enduring changes in emotional processing in the brain. November 12, 2012. Accessed at http://www.massgeneral.org/about/pressrelease.aspx?id=1520
Taylor VA, Grant J, Daneault V, Scavone G, Breton E, Roffe-Vidal S, Courtemanche J, Lavarenne AS, Beauregard M. Impact of mindfulness on the neural responses to emotional pictures in experienced and beginner meditators. Neuroimage. 2011 Aug 15;57(4):1524-33. Epub 2011 Jun 12.