a summary of some of the key findings of research on meditation


The evidence is in – science has now proven meditation to be effective in reducing and managing stress, anxiety, depression, trauma and pain. It can also assist people managing chronic health conditions.

Here is a summary of some of the key findings of research on meditation.


Meditation sharpens your focus.

It’s not surprising that meditation would affect focus and attention, since many practices work on developing this very skill.

And, in fact, researchers have found that meditation helps to counter habituation—the tendency to stop paying attention to new information in our environment.

Other studies have found that mindfulness meditation can reduce mind-wandering and improve our ability to solve problems.

There’s more good news: Studies have shown that improved attention seems to last up to five years after mindfulness training, again suggesting trait-like changes are possible.

Do these benefits apply to people with attention-deficit disorders, and could meditation possibly replace drugs used for people with ADHD? We can’t yet say for sure. While there have been some promising small-scale studies, especially with adults, we need larger randomized controlled trials to understand how meditation might mix with other treatments to help both kids and adults manage attention-deficits.


Long-term, consistent meditation increases resiliency to stress

Note that we’re not saying it necessarily reduces physiological and psychological reactions to threats and obstacles. But studies to date do suggest that meditation helps mind and body bounce back from stress and stressful situations.

For example, practicing meditation lessens the inflammatory response in people exposed to psychological stressors, particularly for long-term meditators. According to neuroscience research, mindfulness practices dampen activity in our amygdala and increase the connections between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Both of these parts of the brain help us to be less reactive to stressors and to recover better from stress when we experience it.

As Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson write in their book, Altered Traits, “These changes are trait-like: They appear not simply during the explicit instruction to perceive the stressful stimuli mindfully, but even in the ‘baseline’ state” for longer-term meditators, which supports the possibility that mindfulness changes our ability to handle stress in a better, more sustainable way.”


Meditation increases compassion and makes our compassion more effective

While we may espouse compassionate attitudes, we can also suffer when we see others suffering, which can create a state of paralysis or withdrawal.

Many well-designed studies have shown that practicing loving-kindness meditation for others increases our willingness to take action to relieve suffering. It appears to do this by lessening amygdala activity in the presence of suffering, while also activating circuits in the brain that are connected to good feelings and love.

For long-time meditators, activity in the “default network”—the part of our brains that, when not busy with focused activity, ruminates on thoughts, feelings, and experiences—quiets down, suggesting less rumination about ourselves and our place in the world.


Meditation improves mental health but needs to be paired with other support

Early research suggested that mindfulness meditation had a dramatic impact on our mental health. But as the number of studies has grown, so has concern about the scale of initial claims.

For example, a meta-analysis examined 47 randomized controlled trials of mindfulness meditation programs, which included a total of 3,515 participants. They found that meditation programs resulted only in small to moderate reductions in anxiety and depression. According to the authors, meditation programs are as beneficial as other treatments—such as exercise, therapy, or taking prescription drugs—on any outcomes of interest. But it is not a silver bullet.

The upshot? Meditation is generally good for your well-being, yes, but it should definitely be considered an adjunct to, not a replacement for, other kinds of treatment for mental conditions.


Meditation seems to reduce many kinds of bias

We are seeing more and more studies suggesting that practicing meditation can reduce psychological bias.

For example, one study found that a brief loving-kindness meditation reduced prejudice toward homeless people, while another found that a brief mindfulness training decreased unconscious bias against black people and elderly people. In a study by Adam Lueke and colleagues, white participants who received a brief mindfulness training demonstrated less biased behaviour (not just attitudes) toward black participants in a trust game.

However, social bias isn’t the only kind of mental bias mindfulness appears to reduce. For example, several studies convincingly show that mindfulness probably reduces sunk-cost bias, which is our tendency to stay invested in a losing proposition.

Mindfulness also seems to reduce our natural tendency to focus on the negative things in life. In one study, participants reported on their general mindfulness levels, then briefly viewed photos that induced strong positive emotion (like photos of babies), strong negative emotion (like photos of people in pain), or neither, while having their brains scanned. More mindful participants were less reactive to negative photos and showed higher indications of positive feeling when seeing the positive photos. According to the authors, this supports the contention that mindfulness decreases the negativity bias, something other studies support, too.


Meditation can improve physical health

Many claims have been made about mindfulness and physical health, but sometimes these claims are hard to substantiate or may be mixed up with other effects. That said, there is some good evidence that meditation affects physiological indices of health.

We’ve already mentioned that long-term meditation seems to buffer people from the inflammatory response to stress. In addition, meditators seem to have increased activity of telomerase, an enzyme implicated in longer cell life and, therefore, longevity.

But there’s a catch. “The differences found [between meditators and non-meditators] could be due to factors like education or exercise, each of which has its own buffering effect on brains,” write Goleman and Davidson in Altered Traits. “Then there’s self-selection: Perhaps people with the brain changes reported in these studies choose to stick with meditation while others do not.” In other words, we should use caution when championing results.


What kind of meditation is right for you? That depends

“Mindfulness” is a big umbrella that covers many different kinds of practice. A 2016 study compared four different types of meditation, and found that they each have their own unique benefits.

During body scan, for example, participants saw the biggest increases in how aware they were of their bodies (unsurprisingly) and the sharpest decline in the number of thoughts they were having, particularly negative thoughts and thoughts related to the past and future.

Loving-kindness meditation led to the greatest boost in their feelings of warmth and positive thoughts about others. Meanwhile, observing-thought meditation seemed to increase participants’ awareness of their thoughts the most. Previous research also suggests that observing-thought meditation has an advantage in reducing our judgmental attitude toward others.

Taken together, these and other studies suggest that if you’re tackling a specific issue—say, feeling disconnected from your body—then you can choose a practice aimed at helping that issue, like the body scan. Loving-kindness might help in conflict with others, while observing-thought meditation can help break rumination.

“The type of meditation matters,” explains postdoctoral researcher Bethany Kok and professor Tania Singer. “Each practice appears to create a distinct mental environment, the long-term consequences of which are only beginning to be explored.”


How much meditation is enough? That also depends

To date, empirical research has yet to arrive at a consensus about how much is “enough.” Aside from the raw number of minutes, other factors may interact to influence the benefits of mindfulness practice: the type (e.g., formal sitting meditation practice vs. informal meditation practices, mindfulness vs. compassion, etc.), the frequency (multiple times a day vs. multiple times a week), and the quality (sitting and actually doing the practice vs. doing the practice “on the go”).

While it’s possible that in the next 10-15 years we will see a CDC-style recommendation regarding meditation practice, to date, the empirical data on the topic are still inconclusive.

Our recommendation? A regular daily meditation practice is better than none at all. Anecdotally as long term meditators, we know that as a baseline 10-15 minutes per day can create significant shifts in stress management. Start with a modest amount and increase if it feels right.


Meditation is considered a safe practice but there are some things to be aware of

Meditation is generally considered to be safe for healthy people. If you are suffering from severe mental illness you should speak to your health care providers before starting a meditative practice, and also please make your meditation instructor aware of your condition.


Research on specific conditions and the impact of meditation

Brain health

Meditation can have a measurable impact on the brain. Meditators show increases in left-sided anterior activation (a pattern associated with positive affect) and changes in grey matter concentration within the left hippocampus (memory).

Evidence also suggests that mindfulness practice is associated with neuroplastic changes in the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, temporo-parietal junction, fronto-limbic network and default mode network structures. This is what allows for improved self-regulation.

Additionally, research supports improvements in neural processing related to attentional core processes with as little as 10 to 15 minutes of mindfulness-based meditation a day.

  • In a 2012 study, researchers compared brain images from 50 adults who meditate and 50 adults who don’t meditate. Results suggested that people who practiced meditation for many years have more folds in the outer layer of the brain. This process (called gyrification) may increase the brain’s ability to process information.
  • A 2013 review of three studies suggests that meditation may slow, stall, or even reverse changes that take place in the brain due to normal aging.
  • Results from a 2012 NCCIH-funded study suggest that meditation can affect activity in the amygdala (a part of the brain involved in processing emotions), and that different types of meditation can affect the amygdala differently even when the person is not meditating.

Immune System

Mindfulness-based meditation may also improve our immune function. Individuals completing mindfulness-based training programs show reductions in inflammatory cytokines concentration.

Mental health

Optimization of mental health not only impacts one’s sense of emotional well-being, but moderates most to all medical outcomes. A systematic review of more than 20 randomized controlled trials in 2011 successfully demonstrated improvements in overall mental health, as well as its benefit for reducing risk of relapse from depression. Similarly, substantial evidence exists that mindfulness has a positive impact on anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

  • A 2014 literature review of 47 trials in 3,515 participants suggests that mindfulness meditation programs show moderate evidence of improving anxiety and depression. But the researchers found no evidence that meditation changed health-related behaviors.
  • A 2012 review of 36 trials found that 25 of them reported better outcomes for symptoms of anxiety in the meditation groups compared to control groups.

Insomnia and Sleep Disorder

Poor sleep and sleep disorders are linked to a plethora of negative medical and psychiatric outcomes. Mindfulness-based interventions offer promise. Randomized, controlled trials have demonstrated a reduction in total wake time and decreases on the Insomnia Severity Index, a tool commonly used to assess for insomnia.

  • In a small, NCCIH-funded study, 54 adults with chronic insomnia learned mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a form of MBSR specially adapted to deal with insomnia (mindfulness-based therapy for insomnia, or MBTI), or a self-monitoring program. Both meditation-based programs aided sleep, with MBTI providing a significantly greater reduction in insomnia severity compared with MBSR.

Chronic pain

Chronic pain has been named a major public health problem, independently from (as well as directly related to) the opioid crisis. Alternative tools are needed to manage pain. Mindfulness-based approaches demonstrate a positive impact. Specifically, meditators show decreased pain and functional pain-related limitations with benefits being comparable with those from cognitive behavioral therapy, lasting up to one year.

  • Research about meditation’s ability to reduce pain has produced mixed results. However, in some studies scientists suggest that meditation activates certain areas of the brain in response to pain.
  • Research about meditation’s ability to reduce pain has produced mixed results. However, in some studies scientists suggest that meditation activates certain areas of the brain in response to pain.
  • A small 2016 study funded in part by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) found that mindfulness meditation does help to control pain and doesn’t use the brain’s naturally occurring opiates to do so. This suggests that combining mindfulness with pain medications and other approaches that rely on the brain’s opioid activity may be particularly effective for reducing pain. Visit the NCCIH Web site for more information on this study.
  • In another 2016 NCCIH-funded study, adults aged 20 to 70 who had chronic low-back pain received either mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) training, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), or usual care. The MBSR and CBT participants had a similar level of improvement, and it was greater than those who got usual care, including long after the training ended. The researchers found that participants in the MBSR and CBT groups had greater improvement in functional limitation and back pain at 26 and 52 weeks compared with those who had usual care. There were no significant differences in outcomes between MBSR and CBT. Visit the NCCIH website for more information on this study.

Reducing burnout

We can only care for others as well as we care for ourselves. There is a significant literature on burnout and stress among healthcare providers. We all know that uncontrolled stress will lead us to be less effective caregivers and employees. It is reassuring to know that RCT trials demonstrate that brief mindfulness practice results in positive changes in levels of stress, anxiety, mindfulness, resiliency and burnout symptoms among healthcare providers. Such interventions may also successfully used in medical and pre-med students, with research finding less depression and anxiety and increased empathy with mindfulness training.

High Blood Pressure

Results of a 2009 NCCIH-funded trial involving 298 university students suggest that practicing Transcendental Meditation may lower the blood pressure of people at increased risk of developing high blood pressure.

  • A literature review and scientific statement from the American Heart Association suggest that evidence supports the use of Transcendental Meditation (TM) to lower blood pressure. However, the review indicates that it’s uncertain whether TM is truly superior to other meditation techniques in terms of blood-pressure lowering because there are few head-to-head studies.

Managing stress related to chronic health conditions

The theory behind mindfulness connects its practice to an enhanced ability to self-regulate cognitive, emotional and behavioural responses. It is postulated that self-awareness (arising from increased attention to the moment-to-moment experience) and acceptance of experiences play a crucial role in self-regulation. Extinction and reappraisal are postulated to play a significant role in emotion regulation. The model by Perry-Parrish et al. is a useful representation of the potential changes associated with mindfulness and how improved coping and psychological functioning.

In a 2014 pilot study, 55 adults with ulcerative colitis in remission were divided into two groups. For 8 weeks, one group learned and practiced mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) while the other group practiced a placebo procedure. Six and twelve months later, there were no significant differences between the two groups in the course of the disease, markers of inflammation, or any psychological measure except perceived stress during flare-ups. The researchers concluded that MBSR might help people in remission from moderate to moderately severe disease—and maybe reduce rates of flare-up from stress.

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