Surely by now nearly everyone has seen some article lauding incredible effects of meditation, some perhaps even sounding ridiculous. With meditation classes and apps, how do we know it’s not all a brilliant marketing ploy? Despite all the recent attention meditation has gotten, we have to remember its origins begin thousands of years ago with Buddhist monks, who were probably not too concerned with marketing, and must have perceived an actual benefit. But is it a placebo effect? Is it just that sitting for a few minutes make people happier?
In this Vox article, meditation is defined by Henepola Gunaratana, a Buddhist monk, as when “One’s attention is carefully directed to an intense examination of certain aspects of one’s own existence.”. Meditation is not passively sitting cross legged, it is actively working attention. This activation is similar to the way activating muscles through exercise, in the sense that ‘exercising your brain’ actually increases brain tissue. In a study done by Sara Lazar et al., in which participants meditated an average of 27 minutes a day, showed significantly increased grey matter concentration in four areas of the brain compared to the control, (all with p less than or equal to 0.004). Though we are cautioned against putting total faith in the p value in “the Dance of the p value”, by general academic standards this is definitely significant. The areas of the brain with increased grey matter concentration influence one’s ability to empathize, as well as regulate emotion and stress.
As Vox says, the details and mechanics of how these changes in brain matter occur are still a mystery, but is likely related to neuroplasticity, meaning that the brain can re-wire itself in response to new situations or environments. It is theorized that the use of particular areas of the brain, (specifically related to emotional management, anxiety/stress, memory and attention), are used more or less during meditation, which correspondingly strengthens or weakens neural ties.
A previous study by the same researchers was the basis for the eight week experiment; an observational study, comparing MRIs of long term meditators to non-meditators, showed a significant increase in cortical thickness in meditators. The second study was to account for the possibility that people with increased cortical thickness are simply more likely to meditate. I think one factor that lends more credence to these studies, is that according to this Washington Post article, Sara Lazar, one of the main contributing researchers, began as a skeptic of the effects of meditation. If a skeptic’s own studies seem to contradict them, I feel the study is less subject to confirmation bias, (at least in the direction of confirming incorrectly).
As far as the Vox article goes, I feel they portrayed a fair view of the picture. They provided ample sources, and those I followed up were published in journals with impact factors at time of publishing. While showing the positives of meditation that science has evidence for, they also point out questions that are left unanswered about it, such as how does meditation increase brain density, why doesn’t meditation affect everyone who uses it the same way, and how or would it be applicable in medical fields.