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Health, Sports & Psychology

Consider meditation

Updated Monday 17th March 2008

While meditation might be some way from being a proven therapy, advances in brain imaging techniques shows it might have an effect that isn't all in the mind, says Tom Heller.

It would be really surprising if there were no changes in the brains of people who practice regular meditation. Some years back, a study lead by Eleanor Maguire found that certain areas of the brains of taxi drivers seemed to be larger and denser than those of other people who didn’t need to use the same spatial-navigational skills during their working lives.

When people meditate there are immediate changes in brain waves, but also longer-term changes in brain structure - entirely different from those found in taxi drivers. During meditation scans and brainwave tracing, techniques are able to demonstrate that certain regions of the brain that are usually active become quiet, while other usually quiet areas become activated. The work of Antoine Lutz and his team suggested this.

This is entirely different to patterns found when people are asleep and may lead to longstanding structural changes in the brains of people who meditate regularly. Sara Lazar of Harvard Medical School was visited by Kathy Sykes during the making of Alternative Therapies. Her researches have shown that the cortex - the outer layer of the brain - gets thicker the more meditating that you do. The intriguing possibility arises that the physical structure of the brain can be altered intentionally, rather in the way bodies of Olympic athletes are developed through specific training regimes.

But what does this mean in everyday life? Although advocates of various types of meditation make expansive claims based on these newly emerging scientific findings their precise significance remains difficult to determine. Linking physical changes in the brain structure and performance to thoughts, feelings and emotions such as 'mindfulness' or ‘enlightenment’ remains complex and unresolved.

Also, it might be possible for mind-body techniques such as meditation to produce positive health benefits even if no structural changes in the brain could be discerned.

Or, possibly, the gross changes that have been noted in brain structure demonstrate the limitations of current neuroimaging and tracing techniques - offering a sense that something is happening but not being able to tell us exactly what. Or, perhaps it's that gross structural physical changes are not necessarily linked to any change in the way we think.

Perhaps there are much more subtle changes that might be happening in the brain and other organs when a person meditates?

Another way that scientific enquiry has attempted to focus on meditation has been to look at whether there are any measurable therapeutic benefits associated with its use. Here, again, there are considerable difficulties in applying current scientific methods to the study of meditation as a mind-body medicine. Each human being is different and the individual ways that we think and control our emotions are not easily standardised or subject to randomised control trials.

Some rigorous analysis by Peter Canter has been used in an attempt to determine whether any of the claims made for a therapeutic benefit from meditation stand up to the usual standards of 'evidence based medicine'. Canter's analysis recognises that a great many papers have been produced that seem to show evidence of a health benefit arising from meditation, but finds that almost all of them can be dismissed because of problems associated with the way that the research has been set up, the selection of subjects for the research or potential bias that may arise when researchers are also involved in the organisations offering meditation.

It does seem a particular problem that much of the research, for example on Transcendental Meditation, has been produced by staunch advocates of that type of meditation who would naturally want to show a positive effect from their specific type of intervention.

However, a similar view could be taken of drug company researchers who might have a partisan view of the outcomes of their research - which is precisely why we have clinical trials before drugs are licensed.

 

Some commentators consider that any beneficial or therapeutic effects of meditation are simply related to the relaxation effect that is almost invariably associated with a session of meditation.

The stress reducing effects of meditation have been utilised and maximised in various new forms of meditation-based therapy such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy (MBCBT). In these newer forms of therapy the evidence base for effectiveness in a range of conditions is becoming more developed, by work undertaken by Paul Grossman amongst others.

Although there remain problems with some of the research methodology there does seem, from the more rigorous work, to be a proven positive effect on several clinical and non clinical problems from this type of intervention.

Despite all the problems associated with attempts to prove scientifically whether or not meditation has a therapeutic effect it can not be denied that many people use it on a regular basis and report therapeutic benefits.

Can this large general effect be dismissed as anecdotal evidence or as a demonstration of a widespread placebo effect?

Does this weight of experience count in any way as evidence?

The failure of evidence-based medicine to discern much in the way of positive effects from meditating is a demonstration that either meditation doesn't work or that the ‘scientific’ analytical tools currently in use are too crude to measure its effect on such complex systems as the brain. Or, perhaps, the truth lays somewhere between the two.

Perhaps we all need to meditate on that...

References and further reading

The therapeutic effects of meditation
Peter Canter in the British Medical Journal, Vol. 326, pages 1049-50

Mindfulness based stress reduction and health benefits: a meta-analysis
Paul Grossman et al. in Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Vol. 57, pages 35-43

Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness
Sara Lazar in Neuroreport, Vol. 16, pages 1893-7

Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice
Antoine Lutz et al. in Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, Vol. 101, pages 16369-373

Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers
Elanor Maguire et al, in Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, Vol. 97, pages 4398-403

What did Kathy discover?

Of all the therapies studied in the series, Kathy Sykes found that mediation bore the closest resemblance to a lifestyle choice (as opposed to a medical treatment). Whilst it is being used as part of treatments for specific health conditions, the evidence for it actually helping is not always that clear.

On the other hand, it is unlikely to do you any harm and so may well be worth trying. Kathy found that it did have a promising role in the treatment of clinical depression and that some scientists were exploring the idea that it could help us all with emotional well-being. Find out more about the meditation programme.


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