Meditation Research Roundup

By Richard Mahler

Western science continues to train its investigative focus on the relationship between meditation and the human body. Each month it seems that one or more articles are published in scientific journals describing the results of rigorous studies involving some form of meditative or contemplative practice. Inquiries in recent years have documented apparent effects from meditation that include lowered blood pressure, decreased heart and respiratory rates, increased blood flow, and other measurable signs of the relaxation response. Other reported benefits include enhancement of immune function and relief of perceived chronic pain due to arthritis and other disorders. Here’s a round-up of some of the more recent clinical study results:

As reported in June 13, 2006, editions of the Washington Post, heart disease patients involved in a small government-funded study who practiced transcendental meditation for four months showed slight improvements in blood pressure and insulin levels. Cited in the article is a report published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Participating patients who learned TM did better on blood pressure and insulin measures than those who spent the same amount of time on lectures, discussions, and homework about the effects of stress, diet, and exercise on the heart. The 103 patients in the study received regular medical care as well, including drugs to lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Adding meditation had "a strong enough effect that we could show a benefit over traditional health care," said co-author Noel Bairey Merz of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. The new study is believed the first to show an effect of meditation on insulin function.

In a separate report, issued on May 8, 2006, by ScienCentral News (, Massachusetts General Hospital psychologist, Sara Laza, is quoted as saying she can see measurable physical changes in the brains of people who routinely meditate. "Meditation can have a serious impact on your brain long beyond the time when you're actually sitting and meditating, and this may have a positive impact on your day-to-day living," said Lazar, an instructor at Harvard Medical School. Her research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control.

As she outlined in the Nov. 15, 2005, issue of NeuroReport, Lazar and her team used MRI brain scans to compare the brains of people who practiced insight (vipassana) meditation every day with those of non-meditators. "These are not monks,” she emphasized, “these are just people who choose to meditate for about 45 minutes a day every day." Lazar and her research team found that certain areas of the cortex — the outer layer of the brain that contains our thinking, reasoning, and decision-making functions — were significantly thicker in the meditators. "One of them is right up in the front of your brain right above your right eye, and this is an area that's involved in decision making and in working memory [as well as] short term memory," she explained. Lazar also saw thickening in another region of the brain, called the insula, that she considers "a central switchboard of the brain." The insula connects the primitive limbic cortex and the more advanced cortex, which is highly developed in primates and humans. Lazar said this region is thought to be "involved in coordinating the brain and the body and the emotions and thoughts," she explained. "It helps us better make decisions." The researchers think this thickening might help to counteract the natural thinning of the cortex that occurs as we get older. The brain's cortex starts getting thinner from about age 20 and continues to thin throughout life. “It's not a cure-all, but it perhaps can help prevent the loss of some functions," Lazar said. "One small part of the front of the brain does not get thinner with age… [suggesting] that this part of the brain is not affected by age. This part of the cortex is involved in short term working memory and cognitive decision-making." Results also suggest that ongoing meditation would continue the thickening process. "The thickness is strongly correlated with the amount of experience. So the more they sat, the thicker it was," Lazar noted.

The Massachusetts researcher plans to further study how meditation might affect mental ability by testing people "at multiple time points and to test their cognitive ability to see if cognitive ability correlates with thickness and if that changes as the brain gets thicker.

The Dalai Lama has long advocated that neuroscientists investigate the effect of spiritual traditions, such as meditation, on the brain. In 1991, the exiled Tibetan leader asked University of Wisconsin professor Richard Davidson whether he would like to study the effect meditation had on the brain. The neuroscientist’s assent led to the groundbreaking discovery that activities like meditation can in fact “train” the mind to react to situations with positive emotions. Last May, Time magazine named Davidson one of the most 100 influential people “who shape our world.” The director of UW’s Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior was labeled a “pioneer in the exciting frontier of mind-body medicine.” Davidson told the university’s Badger Herald that meditation “changes circulations in the brain that are critical for the development of emotion. [Thus,] characteristics like happiness and compassion are skills that can be trained.” Building on his research on the connection between meditation and mental health, Davidson said he is now studying how meditation and other spiritual practices relate to physical health. “We’ve shown that those circuits [that can be affected by meditation] are also related to parts of the body that are important for physical health,” Davidson said.

Richard Mahler is an independent editor, writer, and teacher. He has published 11 books and written for publications such as the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Daily News, Alternative Medicine, Miami Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, Albuquerque Journal, Toronto Globe and Mail, Houston Chronicle, and E/The Environment Magazine.