Brain Science and Meditation: How to Improve the Brain

Stress is no joke. Aside from the sleepless nights and lots of tension, stress can also have a range of negative health effects.

So how do you reduce stress?

A team of researchers at the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine started looking for answers.

They gathered 18 patients who had received diagnoses of breast cancer but were not in active treatment. Arguing that this was a population of people who were under high stress, researchers randomly assigned the patients to two different groups. One group received a mindfulness-based art therapy course, while the other received an education program to serve as a control.

The 8-week mindfulness course combined meditation exercises that stressed awareness of breathing and emotions with expressive art exercises to provide opportunities for self-expression.

Researchers measured participants’ response both before and after the program with a symptom checklist.

But they also used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess cerebral bloodflow before and after the study as well.

(Cerebral bloodflow corresponds to changes in brain activity, so the fMRI scans were an effective way of measuring how the subjects’ brains changed as a result of the intervention.)

So, what were those changes?

Participants who got the mindfulness course showed significantly increased bloodflow to areas of the brain associated with controlling emotions and regulating stress.

What’s more, these increases in cerebral blood flow correlated significantly with reduced stress and anxiety as indicated by the symptom checklist. So, the brains of study participants who got the mindfulness course were actually working differently – and they reported that they felt better as well.

According to the authors, finding ways to change the brain could help improve quality of life for cancer patients.

But anyone can benefit from brain change. Who wouldn’t want to lower their stress and anxiety levels?

I should note, though, that this study has some limitations. First, because the mindfulness course combined meditation with art therapy, we can’t be sure which intervention actually led to change, or if it was the combination of the two.

Second, this study had a rather small sample size, which limits its statistical power.

Despite these limitations, this research suggests one way we can change the brain. I’d like to see research that uses larger samples and isolates its variables more effectively, but this is a good foundation.

To read more, you can find the full study in Volume 28, Issue 5 of Stress and Health.

If you’re interested in other ways to create effective, lasting brain change, take a look at this.

What techniques have you used to reduce stress in the long term? Do you think changing the brain might help your practice? Add your thoughts to the comments below.

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9 Comments

  1. Michael Speca says:

    Yes small sample size limits statistical power and is generally to be avoided but that was not a problem in this study with respect to the main outcome in that- an effect was evident even with the “low” power. A small sample size could be a contributory factor in producing a selection bias however, in that a very small sample (depending partly on recruitment method), may not represent the population of interest adequately. Another concern with small samples that has been expressed is that the outcome of a a small number of participants due to any uncontrolled variable or measurement error can change the main outcome. If I’m wrong about any of this please let me know.

    Wth respect to one of the comments; the results per se can only be considered “confounded” if the research question is ” does variable x result in y outcome”, here the question was more along the lines “do procedures a,b, together as an intervention, produce a change in outcome y?”. Yes, the specific mechanisms/ causal analysis await further explication. Yes, we are confounded if we are trying to answer the former question. I suspect both components of the interventions may have an effect which may be summative or interactive.

  2. Additional support (as if any more is needed) of mindfulness’ importance for use with my patients as well as for myself.

  3. Kyle says:

    I have been meditating for fourteen years. I discovered meditation and Buddhist scriptures (Pali Canon) when I was a teenager dealing with depression. Meditation allows one to concentrate on the root of their pain and delve so deeply into it and all its aspects that they pierce the pain barrier and go beyond suffering. It is nice to see that more and more scientific studies are being conducted in the area of mindfulness. I would really like to see an introduction of “Mindfulness 101” in our school systems throughout the world. If young people had the opportunity to learn valuable techniques that will increase their empathy and equanimity, future generations will benefit greatly. A program to help children understand their thoughts and emotions is the best education that a teacher could bestow upon their students in order to prepare them for the real world experiences they will encounter as they age. It will continue to help them cultivate their wisdom and live full, rich lives with less cravings, anger, restlessness, doubt and lethargy. Meditation practices are, in my experience, the best ways to decrease stress that all of us experience every day. Over time, the science is illustrating that changing one’s thoughts does ultimately change one’s brain.

  4. Beth says:

    What an excellent program last evening! It seems to me that the above study results support the idea and evidence that the mind is “embodied and embedded ” …. Interventions that draw on more than education of the intellect aspect of the brain , but using mindfulness and art.. Accessing emotions and creativity , made more of a difference. Lessons to be learned and applied.

  5. christine batty says:

    I live in France and teach yoga. I need also to heal myself from childhood trauma which has followed me all my life. Mindfullness helps but I found the webinar last night ( 23h00 here! ) fascinating and would like you to tell me two things. First, is there equivalent research and/or therapists here in France and second, how can I become a mindfullness therapist myself? Do I need a medical qualification or… please do reply because I am a real fan and the hairs are standing up on my arms from excitement. Can’t wait fro next week to listen to Rick Hanson, whose “Buddha’s Brain” I have read and recommended to many other people, all in some way connected to wellness and gentle healing.

    • Terry Mandel says:

      Allo, Christine, you do not need to become a therapist to teach mindfulness! You can take Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher training and meditation training in France. Check out http://www.association-mindfulness.org/cycles-MBSR.php for the former and http://www.french.dhamma.org/ for the latter, though there are many options. Just google “mindfulness training + France” or similar and you’ll discover a whole new world! Blessings to you in your exploration.

      • kris says:

        Terry I Just found your reply to m’y post. I Just wanted to thank you!

  6. Dawn Baker says:

    What a pity they confounded the results by having two different active components in the experimental group!!! There is probably a story behind that – a committee that had to come to a decision.

  7. Denice Keepin says:

    I have been a therapist for over 25 years specializing in treating peoples’ food and eating issues in groups and individual therapy. This is my first webinar with this group (Jan 16, 2013 Brain Science) and I find it very satisfying to listen to how the science of the brain backs up what I see clinically as I watch my patients/clients change their relationships to food/body….and get happier and healthier inside and out. Looking forward to listening again!

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