Growing up, my friends and family were very into yoga and meditation. I was raised being told how healthy and helpful both were for the mind and body. I know yoga is good for the muscles as a form of exercise, but the idea that meditation is healthy for your mind never sat quite right with me. For those of you that don’t know, meditation is the act of concentrating on nothing for long periods of time. Can meditation actually change the makeup of your mind on a bio-chemical level? It seems like such an odd concept as people have been questioning how much we can actually control our minds since the beginning of time. The null hypothesis in this case would be that meditation has no affect on the brain, while the alternative hypothesis is that meditation has some sort of affect on the brain.
Supposedly, the way meditation changes the chemical relationships is your brain is fairly simple. Without meditation, the medial prefrontal cortex (or the section of the brain responsible for self reflecting/ thinking about yourself i.e. daydreaming, self evaluating) is very closely related to the Insular cortex (part of the brain associated with the parietal lobes, responsible for touch or feeling) and the Amygdala (responsible for strong, intense emotion such as fear). This is a fancy way of saying whenever you feel scared of a bad physical sensation, you likely think there is a problem related to you. Psychologists have found that with meditation, these regions of the brain become less related. This means that when a problem arises, you’re less likely to think it’s related to you and more likely to look at problems objectively without personal motives. I want to speculate the way psychologists found this out.
This idea suggests that meditation trains the mind to have more rational perspective, but are there studies that show concrete evidence of this? I researched and found one study at UCLA observed 3 aspects of the brain (cortical thickness, white matter and gray matter) and found participants who meditated had slowed or even reversed brain-aging effects in comparison with the control group, or people who did not meditate. The way they observed these aspects was not mentioned and in turn, I have to believe this study was correctional. So we don’t know for certain if the meditation was the variable responsible for these effects on the brain.
Another study done at Yale University looked at people who had been meditating for extended periods of time, in this case it was at least 10 years. These people had less activity in brain areas linked with things such as anxiety, autism and schizophrenia. While this was observational, another study done at Northeastern University had one experimental group of participants take part in an eight-week meditation program and the control group not do anything significant to increase compassion. Then, they tested their compassion. They operationally defined this variable of “compassion” by placing a person with crutches who was having difficulty in front of the participant and seeing if they helped. 50% of the meditating participants helped the person with crutches while only 15% of other participants helped. Both these studies were correlational and didn’t account for any confounding variables. The second study (about compassion) was extremely susceptible to confounding variables because the way the variable was operationally defined was not a definite way to measure compassion, so the validity of the test has to be put in question. Other influencing variables could have been how the participant was feeling that day/ what kind of mood they were in, the appearance of the person with crutches, etc. Both these studies showed soft endpoints and lots of room for error.
So, the question remains. Does meditation actually change the makeup of your mind on a biological level? The conclusion has to be maybe.It’s quite difficult to accept anything as true when it’s a correlation between something completely intangible and immeasurable (in the case, meditation) and a hard endpoint. All the studies I found were correlational and I never saw evidence of change on a bio-chemical level. But, these correlations are fairly strong and if the information can be trusted, then we have reason to reject the null hypothesis. It appears something is going on, but like Andrew has said in class, nothing is ever proven, we just have strong evidence that it’s not due to chance!