Scientists Discover How Meditation Changes the Brain

Researchers find that different types of meditation alter the brain differently.

Meditating woman.
Credit: Getty Images.


Meditation is not only a good way to beat the stress but it actually changes the brains of its practitioners. The specific kind of changes depend on the type of meditation you practice, conclude new studies from the Max Planck Institute of Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany. 

During a nine-month meditation program called ReSource, researchers had 300 participants practice three different kinds of meditation. Each had a particular focus like improving attention, compassion or cognitive skills. The subjects were examined through a number of approaches like MRI, with the scientists finding significant brain alterations during each three-month block.  

Veronika Engert, a neuroscience researcher who authored one of the two papers published on the subject by the Max Planck, reflected on the changes: 

"We were surprised [by] how much can actually happen in three months, because three months isn't that long," said Engert.

Mindfulness-based meditation was one part of the study. The subjects were asked to practice it 30 minutes each day six days a week. The meditation involved focusing on the breath, while keeping eyes closed. After the three months, the participants exhibited thickening in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, according to Engert’s interview with Live Science. That is the area responsible for complex thinking, attention and personality. 

Another focus of study was a three-month session based on “socio-effective competency,” involving meditation geared towards compassion, gratitude and dealing with difficult emotions. This also produced unique brain alterations. 

"If people train [in the skill of] perspective-taking, we see changes in brain regions that are important for these cognitive processes,” explained Engert.

In the third part of the study, the participants had to respond to a stressful situation like a job interview or school exam. All the people who practiced meditation were less stressed out than those who were not. Interestingly, those who were using the compassion-based meditation that encouraged them to understand the perspective of another person showed lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. 

"After this type of a stress test we usually see that cortisol rises after about 20 minutes," said Engert. "This rise in cortisol was lower by 51 percent in those subjects who had the social training."

Professor Tania Singer, the principal investigator of the ReSource Project, highlighted the importance of their findings to understanding brain plasticity. 

"Even though brain plasticity in general has long been studied in neuroscience, until now little was known about the plasticity of the social brain,” said Singer. “Our results provide impressive evidence for brain plasticity in adults through brief and concentrated daily mental practice, leading to an increase in social intelligence."

She pointed out that empathy and compassion are crucial for the welfare of our society, leading to cooperation and conflict resolution. Perhaps, meditation practices can play a role in spreading these important skills.

You can read the papers published by the Institute on the subject here in Science Advances.

A brief history of human dignity

What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.

Credit: Benjavisa Ruangvaree / AdobeStock
Sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies
  • Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
  • That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
  • We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
Keep reading Show less

Mathematical model shows how the Nazis could have won WWII's Battle of Britain

With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.

Photo: Heinrich Hoffmann/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
  • Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
  • A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Keep reading Show less

New data reveals Earth closer to a black hole and 16,000 mph faster

A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.

Position and velocity map of the Milky Way Galaxy.

Credit: NAOJ
Surprising Science
  • A Japanese radio astronomy project revealed Earth is 2,000 light years closer to the supermassive black hole at the Milky Way's center.
  • The data also showed the planet is moving 7 km/s or 16,000 mph faster in orbit around the Galactic Center.
  • The findings don't mean Earth is in more danger from the black hole but reflect better modeling of the galaxy.
  • Keep reading Show less

    How has technology changed — and changed us — in the past 20 years?

    Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.

    PEDRO UGARTE/AFP via Getty Images
    Technology & Innovation
    Just over 20 years ago, the dotcom bubble burst, causing the stocks of many tech firms to tumble.
    Keep reading Show less
    Surprising Science

    The magic of mushrooms: A mycological trip

    A biologist-reporter investigates his fungal namesake.

    Scroll down to load more…
    Quantcast