We’ve talked about the awesomeness of mindfulness on this blog many times. But it’s true that meditation is trendy in the wellness space right now - have you noticed? I’m fine with trends when they are rooted in science and can really help people. You know me - I want to know the why behind everything, like exactly how meditation changes the brain and if those changes can really help people after cancer feel better - less fatigued, more calm, and able to live their lives in the healthiest way possible.
Here I explore the scientific evidence for how meditation works in your brain and how it translates into improved well being. While the experiments illustrated here are not in cancer survivors, I don’t think it’s a huge jump to apply the results to your life after cancer. So let’s not miss out on the benefits of the research and apply it as best we can to the needs of cancer survivors.
What exactly does meditation do to the brain?
Researchers are still working on the details of this question, but there is preliminary research available that begins to explain it.
Expert meditators are people who’ve practiced tens of thousands of hours of meditation, like monks or people who go on ten year meditation retreats. These expert meditators certainly fall outside of the norm, but they’re interesting to study because you’re most likely to see the functional difference meditation has made in their brains. In fact, there are experimental findings showing actual, observable changes in the brains of these expert meditators.
Brain waves can be measured with a tool called an electroencephalogram, or EEG. The EEG measures brain waves. Researchers found that expert meditators have levels of special brains waves, gamma waves, that are completely off the charts.
Gamma brain waves are special because they appear when all regions of the brain harmonize, when separate areas of the brain work together to do a task. The typical person will have a gamma wave very briefly, a flash of special function when a complex problem is finally solved.
The long-term meditators show this type of gamma activity not in a flash, but ALL THE TIME! They have this higher functioning type of brain wave no matter what they’re doing. The meaning of this isn’t clear, but it’s certainly significant.
What meditation can help your brain do well:
Focus and Memory
A strong area of meditation research is in the area of concentration. Cancer survivors with chemo brain can really benefit from this!
Multiple studies have shown this effect.
Researchers at MIT found volunteers who took an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program had more focus than a control group who hadn’t received the training.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin showed just 10 minutes of breath-counting could mitigate the negative effects of multitasking on concentration.
Researchers at UC Santa Barbara showed eight minutes of mindfulness practice improved concentration and reduced mind-wandering. They also found mindfulness had an effect on working memory - a group of students who took a two-week course in mindfulness increased their scores on an important exam by more than 30%!
Studies have also shown improved attention lasts up to five years after mindfulness training, so the effects on focus and memory are sustained, not fleeting.
Deal with Stress
There is good evidence that meditation helps us deal with stress.
Researchers at Emory University gave volunteers an eight-week course of mindfulness training, then showed them upsetting photos to see how they’d respond. They found a decrease in activity in the part of the brain that triggers our built in stress response.
At the same time, meditation increases connections between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, two brain areas that help us manage stress. The result is less reactivity to stressors and a faster recovery from stress when we do experience it.
There is good research regarding the positive effect meditation has on our ability to be compassionate and the effectiveness, or our propensity to act on, that compassion.
In one study, a group of volunteers underwent a two-week program of compassion meditation; the other group did not. When they subsequently played a game in which they had to decide to help victims who’d been cheated by a crooked “dictator”, the volunteers who’d undergone compassion training gave twice as much to the victims as those who had not undergone the training. The compassion training group’s brains also showed increased activity in circuits for attention, perspective taking, and positive feelings when they were scanned.
Other studies have found that compassion meditation strengthens connections between the prefrontal cortex and the brain’s circuits for joy and happiness.
And remember the gamma waves of expert meditators? Interestingly, when those expert meditators were meditating on compassion, their already superhuman levels of gamma rays jumped 700 - 800%!
Let Go of False Self Narratives
We’ve talked about false self narratives on the blog before, particularly in our discussion about self compassion for cancer survivors. Researchers have found meditation helps people become less attached to these self narratives.
When we’re not focused on a specific task, the brain remains active, in a sort of default mode, weaving thoughts, emotions, hopes, and dreams into a self-narrative. Meditation disrupts this, training us to notice when our mind wanders and bring it back into focus. By causing this disruption repeatedly through meditation, the connection between the prefrontal cortex, the sophisticated, conscious thinking portion of the brain, and the background, default mode is strengthened. This has the effect of quieting the tendency to become self obsessed.
A Yale study showed that the background, default brain mode in expert meditators was far less active than beginner meditators, especially when the expert meditators practiced loving-kindness meditations which shifted focus away from themselves.
Another study showed that expert meditators were more likely than beginners to report undistracted awareness and effortless doing, a sign of relinquishing self-referencing. This makes the relationship to your self narrative less relevant, ultimately making it less powerful and impactful.
Expert meditators have the ability to control their emotions, particularly when experiencing intense pain. This has been demonstrated in multiple studies and has obvious implications for cancer survivors experiencing chronic pain.
In one such study, subjects were given a very painful stimulus preceded by a ten second warning. When the warning started, the non expert meditator control group’s brains registered almost as much pain as when the painful stimulus was applied. But expert meditators showed no reaction to the warning sign and exhibited a much more intense response to the pain itself. When the heat stopped, the expert meditators recovered more quickly than the non-expert meditator control group.
This patterns shows how highly adaptive meditation can be for regulating emotions, particularly in terms of pain, emotional and physical. Meditation leads to a full response to challenge in the moment - without permitting emotional reactions to interfere before or after the challenge when they are simply not useful.
Mindfulness research has a long way to go. We need to gain consensus about what mindfulness actually means, let alone why and how it works. We also need long terms studies showing the effects of meditation over time, as well as research regarding the best length and duration of practice.
The good news is that we do know meditating for just half hour a day for two weeks is enough to produce changes in the brain that lead to an improved sense of openness and well being. If you keep it up, you’ll benefit from this lovely brain exercise!