Have your company and your social media feed lately been talking about mental healthcare? Have you come across the advice that meditation is good for everyone? that it calms the body and the mind? Then, did you wonder if it is true? is it scientifically backed? Are there any meditation benefits for the brain health? Would any meditation practice work for you the same way as it has for others? In this blog, we address these concerns to help you make the best choice before you embark on your journey of self-improvement. We describe past research as well as our own study and ongoing endeavours to decode the response of the brain to meditation practice.
Taking care of one’s mental well-being is required to maintain optimal productivity and enthusiasm at work as well as in all other tasks1. The costs of mental healthcare are often significantly high and unfortunately not always covered by insurers despite mental illness being declared at par with physical disorders2.
The major contributors to the cases of untreated mental illnesses are: absence of regular monitoring (unlike routine physical full-body checkups), late detection, social stigma, lack of and inaccessibility to healthcare infrastructure3. What could you do to steer away from this vicious circle of sickness and lack of help? Boost your brain health!
For physical fitness, one can work out in gyms, join sports, eat healthy, and thus, preserve the body’s functioning in a favorable state. However, to improve brain health and mental well-being, there has been a lack of understanding on what specifically can be done. Often one ends up following the same measures taken for overall physical health and based on individual experiences, conclusions are drawn on which intervention works the best.
Therefore, the real problem at hand is the inability to track the expected changes. Tracking our heart’s functioning via fitness-tracking wristbands is gradually becoming a part of our quotidian existence. It is possible to derive deeper insights from the heart’s data to inform us about our physical well-being4. Similarly, there exist smart wearables that do the same for your brain’s functioning5,6,7.
The Neuphony headband is India’s first smart wearable device that tracks your natural brain wave patterns (the electroencephalogram or EEG in clinical terms) and provides a multivariate analysis of your brain’s health8.
Equipped with Neuphony headband, one is ready to test and choose a brain fitness routine. A routine that shows the kind of changes one expects – bigger or faster or more consistent – can be adopted in daily practice.
Why are we emphasizing on choosing a regime?
Can we not just adopt any commonly validated activity and then track our progress using Neuphony? – Surely one can give it a try. However, two things are important to know here.
We at Neuphony are interested in testing the effects of meditation on mental health. Meditation techniques have been widely espoused to achieve a calm and relaxed state9. These techniques generally involve focusing one’s attention and achieving a mentally clear and emotionally calm state.
For centuries, meditation has been used as a means of spiritual growth and self-improvement, and more recently it has gained popularity as a way to improve mental health. We, therefore, looked up past research on this very cause-effect relationship. We will now discuss existing scientific literature on different types of meditation practices such as mindfulness, guided type, etc.
A 2021 study examined the effects of mindfulness-based meditation on memory and attention in a group of healthy undergraduate students. The researchers found that participants who engaged in mindfulness-based meditation thrice a week for 8 weeks showed significantly improved memory, attention and enhanced positivity compared to a control group10. Another study had shown that mindfulness practitioners with at least 6 weeks of practice, performed better at tasks such as the Stroop test that required higher attention levels than non-meditators11.
A research group at Stanford University investigated the effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on attention and stress in a sample of college students. The MBSR meditation regime involves a combination of yoga along with informal and formal mindfulness practices. The researchers found that participants who participated in 2.5 hour-long weekly MBSR sessions for 8 weeks showed significant improvements in attention and reductions in stress compared to the control group12
Guided meditation, in which an individual is guided through a meditation practice by a trained teacher or through the use of an audio recording, may be particularly effective for improving memory, attention, and stress management.
One study, published in a distinguished journal, showed adults who participated in a 13-min guided meditation daily for 8 weeks exhibited lower stress levels, better mood, and enhanced working memory and attention relative to a control group who listened to the 13-min podcast daily.
The same research also found that significant improvements were observed only 8 weeks later and not after 4 weeks of guided meditation. Thus, it is important to the time duration into account while assessing the results of these practices13. Another paper of interest is a 2015 randomised controlled trial of Koru, which is a type of guided meditation involving guided imagery and abdominal breathing.
A 4-week Koru program was found to significantly help in sleep problems and improve perceived stress and mindfulness in adults14.
Besides the intangible effects on cognition, meditation practices have also been known to increase gray matter volume of adult human brain. A leading research group from Harvard Medical School showed using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that MBSR led to increased gray matter density in multiple brain regions namely, left hippocampus, parts of the cerebral cortex and cerebellum.
These brain regions are actively involved in learning, emotion processing, memory consolidation and higher cognitive processes15. Thus, meditation is capable of causing not only functional effects but also physical changes in the structure of the brain.
We conducted a controlled trial of a meditation regime on attention, working memory and stress management in the adult population. We chose guided meditation audio to be tested because of the following reasons:
A group of 47 healthy adults were recruited for the study and randomly divided into two groups: non-meditation (control) and meditation (test) groups.
Out of 47 participants, 16 were lost to attrition, leaving 10 participants in non-meditation and 21 in meditation group.
We then analysed the EEG data of the two groups of participants to compare the brain health in presence and absence of guided meditation. In the meditation group, only the participants who attended at least 3 sessions were included in the group analyses. In control group, only the participants who came for both their sessions were included in the analyses. Let us now discuss the effect of the guided meditation on each of the following cognitive parameters:
The 20-minute guided meditation routine brought about slight favourable changes in the analysed brain health markers; however, the magnitude of these results was very small to conclusively deem the meditation as effective. Specifically, the meditators’ group showed inappreciable improvements in average working memory and attention levels. Further, instead of enhancement, the meditators showed a deterioration in resilience levels and reaction times, but the decline was considerably lesser than those observed in the non-meditators.
Together with the changes in these scores, the minute increase in cognitive load of meditators hold neither positive nor negative valence. Overall, the meditation regime employed in this study was not the best paradigm to derive the expected outcome. The results from this study strongly point towards assessing the same meditation over a longer period of time, say eight weeks instead of four post-baseline recording.
It is important to also consider individual differences in the effects of the meditation among the participants. The individual differences were normalised during the analysis so as to account for the variability in the beginning level of each participant. However, any amount of normalisation cannot rule out the experiences that each participant might go through during the period of the study. Concomitant emotional experiences, or unreported lifestyle changes in sleep, diet, fitness or health can heavily affect the brain activity eventually biasing the results. Further, one meditation cannot cater to everyone’s needs, for example, if one person can only relax in total absence of noise or only during certain time of a day, then our guided meditation routine might not be helpful for them.
There also exist preferences in the kind of audio different people prefer during the meditation. This can explain why some participants showed deterioration of certain cognitive parameters in our study. It is highly recommended for these participants to either try a different audio script of guided meditation or attempt a different kind of meditation such as mindfulness or attention practices.
The participants who found favourable outcomes in some but not all the parameters are advised to continue the guided meditation routine and add another meditation along with it. The additional practice could involve a meditation specifically for the parameter they want to work upon, such as MBSR for stress management. Further, there was a small proportion of study participants who attained all the favourable changes but of magnitude lesser than expected.
These participants should continue the same meditation routine over a longer period, say for 2 months, to achieve the desired results. Increasing the frequency of the sessions could also be helpful to them.
To conclude, this study yielded promising results on the development of a meditation routine that can help adults to boost their brain health. Further studies in the future can use this framework towards building more effective meditation regimes. Our study therefore is a significant step towards pushing the frontiers of brain health technology and combining it with existing fitness practices for the growing health and wellness market.