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Meditation: Small Dose, Big Effect

Even a small amount of meditation can alter brain functioning

It's no secret that meditation can have powerful effects on the mind and body. What is somewhat surprising is the new evidence accumulating in favor of the idea that even brief bouts of meditative practice can help to reprogram the mind. As it happens, little steps have big effects.

As I have blogged about before, eleven hours of meditation changes how the brain is wired. In a study published this week in the journal Psychological Science, it was shown that just five hours of meditation instruction changed how the brain functions.

Here is what happened: Researchers at the University of Wisconsin invited about two dozen people to take part in mindfulness meditation training in exchange for free meditation instruction. Half the group went through five weeks of meditation training right away (meditation group). A wait-listed control group waited until the five weeks was up to start their practice.

Both before and after the 5 week period, everyone took part in a brief 15 minutes of attempted focused attention meditation. They were told: "relax with your eyes closed, and focus on the flow of your breath at the tip of your nose; if a random thought arises, acknowledge the thought and then simply let it go by gently bringing your attention back to the flow of your breath." While they meditated, people wore a cap full of electrodes, creating a picture of their brain activity.

Billions of neurons in the human brain communicate by generating small electro-chemical signals. When probes from an instrument that measures electrical energy are placed near a brain cell, a voltage change can be registered whenever the neuron is active. These electrical potentials are relatively small and cannot be monitored individually in humans without actually opening the head - at least not yet. But, because neighboring neurons frequently are active close together in time, the behavior of a group of neurons can be measured with electrodes placed on the scalp.

People in the meditation group could attend up to nine, 30-minute meditation instruction sessions across a five week period. In actuality, they attended a little under 7 instruction sessions, averaging 5 hours and 16 minutes of training in total.

Even with this small amount of practice, the researchers found big differences in brain functioning. Specifically, meditation training seemed to shift activity in the frontal regions of the brain towards a pattern indicative of greater positive, approach-oriented emotional states.

So, why such big effects with relatively small steps? The researchers think the answer is two-fold. First, people in the study were able to decide which meditation sessions to attend, and for how long; this flexibility may have allowed them to determine for themselves when they would be most receptive to meditation and thus helped them get the most out of the experience. Second, the small amount of active practice people undertook seemed to lead to larger amounts of spontaneous practice. Indeed, many people said that, throughout the five week period, they often found themselves focusing their attention in the way they had been taught, even without having set out to do so.

As it happens, you don't need hundreds or even dozens of hours of meditation training to have an impact on brain functioning. This is good news for those of us who are interested in the benefits of meditation, but find the type of practice undertaken by life-long meditators to be a daunting time commitment.

For more on meditation and the brain, check out my book Choke!

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Moyer, C. A. et al. (2011). Frontal Electroencephalographic Asymmetry Associated With Positive Emotion Is Produced by Very Brief Meditation Training. Psychological Science.

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