When your imagination and your thought are in conflict, your imagination will inevitably win.
Many of us have felt the peace of meditation after just a few minutes of meaningful silence. There are long-term and far-reaching benefits to meditation that we may not realize, too. A new study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience shows that just 8 weeks of dedicated meditation training changes the brain—even outside of the meditative state.
Brain responses to others’ emotional states
Co-author Gaelle Desbordes recruited healthy subjects with no previous meditation training for the study and separated them into three groups. Before commencement of the experiment, the researchers showed each participant images of people in varying emotional states and situations.
Thereafter, the participants’ training began. For two hours weekly for eight weeks, each subject took part in one of the following activities:
- Mindful attention meditation to grow awareness of one’s breath and mind-state
- Compassion meditation to grow empathy
- Health discussion group
Each participant had 16 hours of training or discussion time by the end of eight weeks, at which time the researchers repeated the image exercise that had been conducted prior to the experiment. The results from comparing before-and-after scores excited the researchers and spiritual experts everywhere.
Increased empathy, greater stress regulation
While the health discussion group showed no sign of changes in the brain after eight weeks of discussion, participants in both meditation groups experienced remarkable activity shift in the amygdala, a crucial part of the brain for emotions.
When shown the images, participants of mindful attention meditation showed less activity in the right amygdala than when previously analyzed. Researchers say this indicates greater ability to cope with stress and difficult emotions.
On the other hand, participants of compassion meditation showed increased activity level in the right amygdala. Their empathy had reached higher levels, just as the training intended.
“Since the compassion meditation is designed to enhance compassionate feelings, it makes sense that it could increase amygdala response to seeing people suffer,” Desbordes explains.
Any meditation style benefits the self
Greater empathy does not, however, equate to greater stress levels. Desbordes adds that “increased amygdala activation was also correlated with decreased depression scores in the compassion meditation group, which suggests that having more compassion towards others may also be beneficial for oneself.”
Although traditional Buddhist meditation styles were used for this experiment, it’s likely that any style—even prayer in Judeo-Christian, Islamic, Hindu, and other faiths—that puts one in a mindful or compassionate state would have similar effects.
This goes to show that meditation isn’t just about that moment in time. Benefits can be reaped elsewhere to improve one’s stress response or empathy, ultimately leading to greater happiness of the self and maybe to a few others. Joy is, after all, infectious.
Sarah Clare is a writer and oversees the site projectmanagementsoftware.com, where she has recently been researching project planning tools. In her spare time, Sarah enjoys cooking and scrapbooking.