Are There Any Meditation Benefits for Brain Health?

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Is Meditation Really Helpful in Enhancing Brain Health

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.

Can you monitor your Brain while meditating?

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.

Choosing a Meditation Regime & Meditating with Neuphony

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.

  • First, one fitness regime does not suit everyone. The results differ due to differences in genetics, lifestyle, health history, age, diet, diet, novel experiences and many other factors.
  • Secondly, referring to past research can help make informed choices so as to maximize favourable output and minimize the wastage of time and effort.

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.

Effects of Mindfulness based meditation on Brain Health

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

Effects of Guided Meditation on Brain Health

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.

The Meditation Study - Neuphony X Level Supermind

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:

  • Ease of use: One of the main advantages of guided meditation is that it is generally easier for people to use than unguided meditation. The verbal guidance and instructions provided by the practitioner can help people maintain focus and avoid getting distracted, making it easier for them to get the benefits of meditation.
  • Customisation: Another advantage of guided meditation is that it can be customised to meet the individual needs of the person practising it. The practitioner can provide different types of guidance and instructions based on the person’s goals and preferences, allowing them to get the most out of their meditation practice.
  • Support: In addition to the practical benefits, guided meditation can also provide emotional support and encouragement. The presence of a practitioner or human voice can create a sense of community and connection, which can be especially helpful for people who are new to meditation or who may be struggling with stress or anxiety.

Meditators vs Non-meditators - Criteria, Schedule & Type of Meditation

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. 

  • The participants in the meditation group were called to attend 5 sessions, once per week.
  • Each session started with a baseline recording of brain activity using Neuphony headband.
  • The baseline EEG recordings were collected to derive various cognitive parameters for each participant. Following this, the participants were made to follow a 20-minute guided meditation routine and were requested to perform the same meditation daily by themselves.
  • The first and the fifth session also involved a big blue ball game wherein the reaction time of each participant to a particular stimulus was measured.
  • The cognitive parameters from each of the five sessions together with reaction time from first and the fifth session provided better insights into the brain health of each participant over the five weeks.
  • The control group or the non-meditation group participants were called only for two sessions: one in Week 1 and the second in Week 5.

    From these participants, baseline data and reaction time data were collected but no meditation was prescribed to them. Participants from both meditation and non-meditation groups were asked to not initiate any major lifestyle changes such as those in fitness, diet, sleep routine, medication etc. over these five weeks and to document if they had to implement any such change.

Effects of Guided Meditation on Cognitive parameters - Neuphony X Level Study

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:

  1. Working Memory: It is the capacity of brain to temporarily hold and recall useful information during a task. Using the band power in high beta and alpha activity, we derived the change in working memory scores of every participant due to the incorporation of guided meditation. While the non-meditation group showed a 11% average boost in working memory, the meditators showed a 16% increment. This 5% difference in the means, although statistically insignificant, hints towards a possibility of bigger effect size if the meditation is continued for further weeks.

  2. Attention: The alpha and theta band powers were employed to evaluate the effect on attention which is the ability to direct one’s focus to a given task. While there was a 0.4% decrease in the average attention levels of non-meditators, there was 0.3% rise observed in the meditators. This result was also not statistically strong but is consistent with the weak trend in working memory score, therefore indicates towards trying a longer duration of the meditation practice.

  3. Cognitive Load: The mental preoccupation due to ongoing workload, stress and other lifestyle-related commitments is called cognitive load and is calculated from theta power in the frontal region and alpha power in the parietal region of the brain. After 5 weeks of guided meditation, there was a 1% increase in cognitive load observed in meditators group, while the non-meditators exhibited a 3% reduction. Increase in cognitive load is linked to a busy mind, which can mean either a stressed and worried state or a highly productive state. So, the most accurate inference is derived combining this score with stress, memory and attention levels.

  4. Resilience to stress: It is the ability to deal with stressful circumstances and minimise their long-term effects on your mental state. The control group of non-meditators showed a 97% decrease in resilience to stress. The meditators also showed a decrease, however lesser than that of the control group, i.e., 26%. Ideally, we expect an increase in resilience after an effective meditation practice. Low resilience also strongly correlates to high stress levels.

  5. Reaction Time: It is the time to respond to a relevant stimulus, as measured by the big blue ball game. Lower reaction times are related to higher focus levels. We expected a decrease in reaction time after the meditation study. The reaction time for non-meditators was 9% higher in Week 5 than in Week 1 whereas for the meditator group, it increased only by 2%. This result was most close to significance with a p-value of 0.051, among all the measured cognitive parameters, indicating that the effect of the meditation practice was the strongest here. After a closer look at the data, we observed that while 29% of control participants showed the desired decrease, 33% of meditators showed a decrease in the reaction time.

Conclusion - Neuphony X Level Study

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. 

References:

 

  1. Bubonya, M., Cobb-Clark, D. A., & Wooden, M. (2017). Mental health and productivity at work: Does what you do matter? Labour economics, 46, 150-165.

  2. Ghosh, M. (2021). Mental health insurance scenario in India: Where does India stand? Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 63(6), 603.

  3. Gamm, L., Stone, S., & Pittman, S. (2010). Mental health and mental disorders—A rural challenge: A literature review. Rural healthy people2(1), 97-114.

  4. Bayoumy, K., Gaber, M., Elshafeey, A., Mhaimeed, O., Dineen, E. H., Marvel, F. A., … & Elshazly, M. B. (2021). Smart wearable devices in cardiovascular care: where we are and how to move forward. Nature Reviews Cardiology18(8), 581-599.

  5. Hickey, B. A., Chalmers, T., Newton, P., Lin, C. T., Sibbritt, D., McLachlan, C. S., … & Lal, S. (2021). Smart devices and wearable technologies to detect and monitor mental health conditions and stress: A systematic review. Sensors21(10), 3461.

  6. Saganowski, S., Kazienko, P., Dziezyc, M., Jakimów, P., Komoszynska, J., Michalska, W., … & Ujma, M. (2020). Review of consumer wearables in emotion, stress, meditation, sleep, and activity detection and analysis. arXiv preprint arXiv:2005.00093.

  7. Byrom, B., McCarthy, M., Schueler, P., & Muehlhausen, W. (2018). Brain monitoring devices in neuroscience clinical research: the potential of remote monitoring using sensors, wearables, and mobile devices. Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics104(1), 59-71.

  8. Neuphony Headband website: https://neuphony.com/products/headband/

  9. Goleman, D. (1976). Meditation and consciousness: An Asian approach to mental health. American Journal of psychotherapy, 30(1), 41-54.

  10. Pragya, S. U., Mehta, N. D., Abomoelak, B., Uddin, P., Veeramachaneni, P., Mehta, N., … & Mehta, D. I. (2021). Effects of combining meditation techniques on short-term memory, attention, and affect in healthy college students. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 607573.
  11. Moore, A., & Malinowski, P. (2009). Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility. Consciousness and cognition, 18(1), 176-186.

  12. Goldin, P. R., & Gross, J. J. (2010). Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on emotion regulation in social anxiety disorder. Emotion, 10(1), 83.

  13. Basso, J. C., McHale, A., Ende, V., Oberlin, D. J., & Suzuki, W. A. (2019). Brief, daily meditation enhances attention, memory, mood, and emotional regulation in non-experienced meditators. Behavioural brain research, 356, 208-220.

  14. Greeson, J. M., Juberg, M. K., Maytan, M., James, K., & Rogers, H. (2014). A randomized controlled trial of Koru: A mindfulness program for college students and other emerging adults. Journal of American College Health, 62(4), 222-233.

  15. Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry research: neuroimaging, 191(1), 36-43.