Does Meditation Have Medical Benefits?

Being diagnosed with generalized anxiety leaves one with a lot of questions, mostly regarding treatment. Although most people would assume that medicine and therapy are the only two available options, I’ve done a lot of research into various self care strategies that can benefit someone outside of those two (sometimes expensive) options. Something I’ve personally found incredibly calming is meditation. Many people agree with this sentiment and believe it adds to their lives and health in other positive ways as well. So are there any medical opinions or studies done on this topic?

Two studies, both performed by Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Mass Gen, strove to explore the medicinal effects of meditation. Lazar and the other researchers hypothesized that meditation may also be associated with changes in brain structure. In this situation, the null hypothesis would be that meditation has no effect on brain structure, and the alternative hypothesis is that meditation does indeed change one’s brain structure.

In the first study Lazar worked on, the brains of people with extensive meditation experience were imaged and certain areas of their brains were found to be thicker than the brains of the control group. The regions of the brain that showed an increase in thickness had to do with attention, interoception (the sense of one’s physiological condition), and sensory awareness. Additionally, the difference between older participants who meditated and those that didn’t was extremely pronounced, suggesting that meditation could even work to stop the effects of aging on certain areas of the brain.

However, Lazar and her team of researchers realized that because they simply measured the brains of the two different groups of people that there could leave room for some confounding variables that could lead to the difference in cortex thickness. The second study functioned to remove that possibility by setting the study up in a different way. This time, the researchers obtained before and after MRI images of the brains of 16 participants who went through a 8-week meditation program. These images were then compared to a control group of 17 people who did not do any meditation during that period. These results again confirmed that there was a significant difference in the thickness of certain cortexes of the brain involved in learning, memory, emotion regulation, and self-reflection.

Two studies does not necessarily mean that meditation is good for you. These studies could be false positives or there could be a large amount of studies performed that weren’t published due to the fail to reject the null hypothesis, therefore suffering from the file drawer problem. That being said, the research is promising. Although the first study could be explained away by chance, the fact that the second study – arguably set up much better – confirms the result makes me feel like I should be making sure to increase my frequency of meditation.


1 thought on “Does Meditation Have Medical Benefits?

  1. Sabrina Chan

    Great blog post. I like all of the material from class you included. I thought it would be interesting to see an opposing study basically stating that meditation is useless, but I could not find such a study. Perhaps this suffers from the file-drawer problem?

    Anyway, I can’t see any way that meditation would affect people badly. At most, it might waste time, but even if meditation isn’t scientifically beneficial, I don’t think that should deter anyone from doing it. It seems like any other hobby. If you like it, and if it releases dopamine, then do it.

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