Written by: Jonathan Zayan

It is important to note the distinction between Attention to Breathing (ATB) and meditating. In Western culture, meditation is used to promote relaxing in an almost “sleep-like” state; this usually involves focus on ATB. The original goal of meditation was to achieve awakening, which leads to calmness and counteracts mental laxity and sleepiness. Currently, it is widely accepted that meditation can reduce stress and that it can add to mental clarity. The concept of stress reduction does not express or explain the true breath of benefits received from meditation. With modern technological advancements in neuroscience, there are now accessible tools that can measure the effects of meditation using empirical data, which surpasses the realm of pseudoscience.

Benefits of daily mediation based on duration:

5-10 minutes: Makes you sleepy but will have a positive effect on relaxation.

20 minutes: Leads to less anxiety.

30 minutes: Leads to awakening, which involves increased cortical arousal. Counters the mental laxity and sleepiness that is associated with shorter meditation periods. Also, increases alertness and vigilance. This means less sleep and more attention.

30-40 minutes: Enlarges your hippocampus which increases memory performance and helps to regulate negative emotions such as anxiety and depression.

Over 2 hours: Leads to more vigilance due to increased tonic memory.

12-15 hours: Decreases the necessary amount of sleep needed each night by at least 2 hours.

Overall effects of meditation:

  • Decreases grey matter in the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), which leads to empathy, compassion, and a better perspective in regards to dealing with and understanding people.
  • Decreases the amount of grey  matter in the amygdala, which lowers stress and regulates negative emotions such as anxiety and depression.
  • Increase grey matter in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which stops shrinkage that is associated with aging.
  • Lowers stress in regards to internal changes; this allows stress to be reduced, regardless of external negative stimuli.
  • Positively effects your anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) which leads to a better thought process and increased alertness through enhancement of tonic alertness.

The information presented above was compiled from the results of three neuroscience experiments. The sources and details of their findings are noted below:

According to Britton et al., (2014), “5-10 minutes a day [of meditation] for 2-3 days a week (<1h/week) increased self-reported sleep duration by more than an hour, but as practice times approached 30 minutes a day (>3h/week), then sleep duration began to decrease and cortical arousal began to increase” (p. 10). According to Britton et al, (2014), “High levels of activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) correspond to alert wakefulness” and “the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) is thought to control arousal via brainstem noradrenergic activation and multiple thalamic nuclei” (p. 4). The cortical arousal which increases activity in the dlPFC and the dACC play a very important role in attention.

Three types of attention:

  • Orienting: limits attention to selected stimuli.
  • Executive: prioritizes tasks and responses.
  • Alerting: maintains mental preparedness.

Types of alertness:

  • Phasic: increases readiness to an expected cue.
  • Tonic: increases the level of arousal to detect an unexpected cue.

“Tonic alertness is associated with activity in the right hemisphere cortical areas and subcortical networks, particularly the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), the anterior insula, the inferior parietal lobule, the thalamus, and the brainstem” – (Britton et al., 2014, pg. 4).

In terms of meditation, tonic alertness is essential for conscious awareness. The establishment of tonic alertness helps to distinguish between awakening and being in a sleep-like state.

Britton et al., (2014), “found that meditation students who performed 40-minutes of daily mediation improved their performance on the psychomotor vigilance task (PVT) in comparison to a nap or a control activity” (p. 7). 30-minutes of meditation a day, can increase levels of cortical activity in areas of the brain such as the dACC and the dlPFC which control arousal and attention. The increased levels of activity impacts the level of tonic alertness, which allows a meditator to be alert to unexpected stimuli opposed to being in an unaware, sleep-like state.

Sara Lazar further demonstrated the benefits of meditating for 30-minutes a day by comparing the level of grey matter in the PFC from meditators to non-meditators.

“The PFC shrinks with age [caused by a reduction of grey matter], making it harder to remember… the 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of grey matter in their PFC as the 20-year-old non-meditators” – (Lazar, 2011)

Lazar’s second experiment involved enrolling non-mediators through a stress reduction program that trained the participants how to meditate. After the training, the participants meditated for 30 to 40 minutes a day, for eight weeks. The participant’s brains were scanned before and after the eight-week period. The scans revealed that after the eight weeks, the participants had a larger hippocampus than they had before they started meditating (Lazar, 2011). The hippocampus plays a large role in memory, as well as an important role in emotional regulation.

Fedel Zeidan measured the effects of meditation and ATB on anxiety by performing a random effects analysis to determine if the relationship between SAI and regional brain signals. Zeidan’s results showed that twenty minutes of mindfulness meditation significantly reduced state anxiety in each session, compared to subjects who simply attended to their breathing

The MRI revealed that, “ATB was associated with greater cortical activity in areas such as the left putamen… [and] middle frontal gyrus” (Zeidan, 2013, p755). Zeidan’s experiment showed that mediation can reduce more intrusive negative emotional problems such as anxiety. In addition, the experiment revealed that the level of decreased anxiety was much larger than a comparable non-medicinal based technique, in this case it was ATB.

Lamp

In addition to anxiety relief, meditation also regulates other negative emotions. Meditating decreases matter in the temporoparietal junction (TPJ). The TPJ plays a role in perspective, empathy, and compassion. According to Lazar (2011), mediation reduces matter in the TPJ which leads to more empathy, more compassion, and arguably a “better” perspective. Meditation also decreases the amount of grey matter in the amygdala (Lazar, 2011). The amygdala plays a large role in emotion and also deals with the concept of “fight or flight”. The decrease in grey matter in the amygdala reduces stress.

“It is important to note that, the reduction of stress is not caused by a change in the environment but instead is caused by a change with-in the person towards the situation” – (Lazar, 2011).

Meditation uses attention and builds it up through practice. Benefits of increased attention are not just contained during the meditation.

People who meditate for two hours a day for the past five years, “made significantly fewer omission errors on a continuous performance task than novices, indicating a greater level of tonic alertness” (Britton et al., 2014, p. 7). Another study compared participants who meditated 12-15 hours and 1-2 hours a day which resulted in, “Seventy percent of the retreat participants reported an average 2-hour decrease in sleep duration in comparison to 10% of controls, who also reported increases in sleep duration” (Britton et al., 2014, p. 9). “Buddhist texts suggest a nocturnal sleep time among proficient meditators of approximately 4 hours” (Britton et al., 2014, p. 9). These finding illustrate the balance between the body being relaxed while actually being in a heightened state of arousal, which is referred to as awakening. If a meditator is just relaxing or ATB, opposed to being in a state of awakening, then they would be more tired, as illustrated with the beginning meditators.

I believe that meditation should be more common and taught at an early age. Living in America, I hardly know anyone who meditates. I especially do not know any children who meditate. Based on all of the positive emotional effects meditation has, I wonder what the world would be like if everyone meditated. I am sure that we would not live in a utopia, but maybe people would be more sensible and at least be able to better understand each other.


References

Britton, W.B., Lindahl, J.R., Cahn, B.R., Davis, J.H., & Goldman, R.E. (2014). Awakening is not a  Metaphor: The effects of Buddhist Meditation Practices on Basic Wakefulness.Ann NY Acad Sci., 1-29. Retrieved from, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24372471

Zeidan, F., Martucci, K. T., Kraft, R.A., McHaffie, J. G., & Coghill, R. C. (2013). Neural             Correlates of Mindfulness Meditation-Related Anxiety Relief, 751-759. Retrieved from, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23615765

Lazar, S. (2011) How Meditation Can Reshape Our Brains: Sara Lazar at TEDxCambridge 2011. Retrieved from, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8rRzTtP7Tc

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