Meditation may influence the way the brain processes emotions — even when you’re not actually practicing it, a new study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience suggests.
Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of Arizona, Boston University, the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies and Emory University found that meditation changes the way the amygdala brain region responds to emotional stimuli — but that this effect on emotional processing takes place even when a person is not in a state of meditation. The amygdala is a brain region involved in emotion and memory processing.
“This is the first time that meditation training has been shown to affect emotional processing in the brain outside of a meditative state,” study researcher Gaëlle Desbordes, of Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston University’s Center for Computation Neuroscience and Neural Technology, said in a statement.
Researchers had study participants undergo one of three eight-week courses: one course was on mindful attention meditation, where they were trained to be more attentive and aware of their thinking, feeling and breathing; one course was on compassion meditation, where they were trained to feel compassion and kindness to other people and themselves; and one course just provided general health information.
Then, 12 people from each group underwent fMRI brain scans as they looked at 216 images that were meant to provoke positive, neutral or negative emotions. There was no mention or instruction of meditation while the study participants were undergoing the brain scans, and they were followed up with after to make sure they were not meditating while undergoing the fMRI scans.
The researchers found that the people who took either of the meditation courses experienced decreased activity in the amygdala in response to images that provoked negative emotions — a sign that they were coping well with stress and were experiencing stability of their emotions. But people who only went through the health education class experienced an increase in the amygdala in response to images that provoked negative emotions.
Previously, Massachusetts General Hospital researchers found that eight weeks of meditation training was linked with more density of grey matter in the hippocampus brain region (which plays a role in memory and learning), as well as parts of the brain linked with compassion and self-awareness. That research was published last year in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.