Neurological Variations in Cultural Meditative Practices

By Maria C. Gable

Meditation originated from ancient eastern practices and has been part of its culture for 2,500 years (Taylor, Daneault, Grant, Scavone, Breton, Roffe-Vidal, ... & Beauregard, 2012; Otani, 2003).  Meditation was used to facilitate enlightenment as a way of overcoming hardship, pain, stress, and sorrow (Otani, 2003). It is a mental process that relaxes the individual and induces multiple physiologic responses (Lazar, Bush, Gollub, Fricchione, Khalsa, & Benson, 2000).  Meditation alters both cognitive and sensory dimensions of an individual’s subjective experience (Zeidan, Martucci, Kraft, Gordon, McHaffie, & Coghill, 2011).

In recent years, meditation is being studied more frequently using methods that elicit quantifiable data. Brain mapping methods, EEG, and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) are being used to obtain data regarding the benefits of meditation to aid in both physical and psychological issues (Taylor et al., 2012).  EEG theta waves have been measured in experienced Zen monks during mindful meditation. Neuroelectrical and neuroimaging studies have shown that meditation elicits changes in the dorsolateral prefrontal and cingulated cortex areas associated with executive function and high-level attention (Raffone, Manna, Perrucci, Ferretti, Del Gratta, Belardinelli, & Romani, 2007).  In a recent fMRI study, Buddhist monks participated in a meditative practice that showed activity in the left fronto-parietal areas associated with present-moment awareness (Raffone et al., 2007).

Transpersonal and spiritual therapeutic techniques have proven to assist in the relief of both mental and physical health related symptoms and disorders.  An individual’s level of emotional stability has been shown to increase through the practice of mindfulness meditation, such as in the treatment of major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder (Taylor et al., 2012).  Studies of Buddhist “mindfulness” meditation have shown to alleviate symptoms of chronic pain and fibromyalgia (Miovic, 2004; Richards & Worthington, 2010). Zeidan et al. (2011) used an fMRI technique to investigate the relationship between meditation and pain-related brain processes.  Orbitofrontal cortex activation, thalamic deactivation, and increased activity in the anterior insula and anterior cingulate cortex suggest that meditation influences multiple brain regions, effectively altering the individual’s subjective perception of pain.

There are different approaches to meditation, and not all techniques necessarily align with western culture.  Easterners tend to be more experienced and believe in a holistic approach, while westerners generally believe in an individualistic approach to society. In a study by Taylor et al. (2012), fMRI results were examined in both experienced and non-experienced meditators.  Researchers found that, compared to beginners, experienced participants had increased connectivity among specific default mode network (DMN) areas, and weaker connectivity between other DMN regions related to emotional appraisal and self-referential processing. Specifically, mindfulness meditation has been linked to a decrease in medial prefrontal cortex activity, a DMN region associated with self-referential processing.  These findings reflect that training in meditation over longer periods of time may lead to significant functional changes between major DMN regions, suggesting stronger awareness in the present moment.

However, some of the beneficial effects of meditation may still present in novice meditators.  Zeidan et al. (2011) found that participants with only 4 days of mindfulness training exhibited signs of pain reduction in fMRI studies.  Although there is still a positive correlation found between experienced meditation and pain relief, meditation for any patient may prove to be an effective therapy in clinical settings.


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