In a new study from University of Wisconsin–Madison, researchers examined brain activity in non-meditators, new meditators, and long-term meditators with thousands of hours of lifetime experience.
They discovered big differences in emotion networks of the brain among these groups.
Mental training, such as mindfulness meditation, has been shown to alter networks in the brain and improve emotional and physical well-being.
But researchers are still discovering how such practices change the brain and what differences exist between people who meditate regularly and those who do not.
The current study included more than 150 adults. The long-term meditators already practiced daily and had completed multi-day meditation retreats.
New meditators were randomly assigned to an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course that included meditation.
The control group, made up of people with no meditation experience, was randomly assigned to a “health enhancement program” over the same time period that included well-being practices, but not meditation specifically.
After an 8-week period, participants viewed and labeled photos as either emotionally positive, negative or neutral while undergoing a brain scan by functional magnetic resonance imaging.
The team found that both long-term practitioners and new meditators – when compared to non-meditators – showed reduced activity in the amygdala when they viewed emotionally-positive images.
The amygdala is an area of the brain critical for emotion and detecting important information from the environment.
The researchers also found that more experience with meditation practice on retreat among long-term meditators was associated with reduced activity in their amygdalae when viewing negative images.
While reductions in reactivity to positive images were seen with across all levels of training, this indicates that modulating reactivity to negative emotional challenges requires more training.
The researchers suggest that mindfulness practices decrease the extent to which emotional stimuli hijack us.
It may simply be that less meditation practice is required to change the brain’s response to positive images than to negative ones.
In addition, the team discovered that, following eight weeks of training, people new to meditation showed an increase in connectivity between the amygdala and an area of the brain that supports executive function (which includes self-regulation and goal tracking) and emotion, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.
This was not seen in long-term meditators, perhaps because emotion regulation becomes more automatic with increased practice, the researchers surmise.
Because researchers wanted to understand meditation’s impact on a non-clinical population, the study did not include people who took medications for mental health disorders or had a diagnosed psychiatric disorder within the past year.
But the team hopes to expand the research in the future to look at a mix of people with and without mental health disorders to see if the findings are similar.
Richard Davidson, William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at UW–Madison, led the work.
The lead study author Tammi Kral is a graduate student in psychology at UW–Madison.
The study is one of the largest studies of its kind to date, and finding is published in the journal NeuroImage.
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Journal reference: NeuroImage