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Colloquy Podcast: Meditation Changes Your Brain. Here's How.

It's Mental Health Awareness Month. If you're one of the 32 percent of US adults who experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression last year, your doctor or mental health care provider may have recommended you learn meditation to help manage your stress. But how exactly does this age-old practice change the brain? Neuroscientist Richard Davidson, PhD '76, the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, discusses his decades of research on meditation—enabled in part by a collaboration with the Dalai Lama—and dispels myths about how it works and when, where, and how it can be done.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and correctness.

Talk about your collaboration with the Dalai Lama. How did it come about? What did or does it look like, and what are the headline findings of your research? 

Well, I first met the Dalai Lama in 1992. He was the one who recognized the important currency of science in the modern Western world and wanted to encourage serious scientific research in this area. And he heard about me through the grapevine. He knew I was a closet meditator. He also knew that I was a serious neuroscientist. 

And he asked me a very simple question when we first met: Why can't you use the same tools of modern neuroscience that you're using to study depression and anxiety and stress and use those tools to study kindness and to study compassion? And so, I made a commitment to the Dalai Lama, on that day in 1992, that I was going to do everything I could to put qualities like kindness and compassion within the crosshairs of modern science. 

You also asked about key findings or key insights, and I think that one of the key insights is the finding that engaging in this very simple form of, if you will, a kind of mental exercise is accompanied by changes in the brain that we believe facilitate the enduring impact of these changes. 

Did the Dalai Lama facilitate your access to experienced meditators who had a lot of hours “on the cushion?” 

Yes, he did. His support and direct involvement were critical in recruiting these very long-term practitioners, and that's where our research began in this area. Because we reasoned, in a very simple-minded way, that we would first test these very long-term practitioners. And if we didn't see anything different in their brains, it was very unlikely that we would see differences in people who are just learning to meditate. 

So, we brought people into our lab. We flew them from Asia. They came to Madison, Wisconsin. They spent, typically, somewhere between three and five or six days with us. And we tested them over this period of time in the laboratory. And there are a number of seminal publications that resulted from that that helped to establish that there was a “there” there—that there was something different about their brains. 

And then we began to pursue that using other strategies, including looking at more novice practitioners because the work with long-term practitioners is super interesting and kind of flashy, but ultimately, it's not fully scientifically satisfying because there are always questions about these long-term practitioners. After all, most people would not elect to live their life this way. And so these people are highly self-selected and presumably quite different to start with. And a skeptic could say, “Well, maybe their brains are just different that way to begin with. Maybe it has nothing to do with meditation.” 

And so in order to do more rigorous scientific work, we needed to do a randomized controlled trial where you take people who've never meditated before. You randomly assign one group to meditation and another group to a control condition. You train them over time, and you test them before and after. And that's the kind of method that we and others have used to much more definitively establish that it is indeed the meditation that is producing the kinds of changes that we're talking about. 

Let me first ask you about the experienced meditators. Did you find that their brains looked different? How so and why did it matter?

We have found differences in, for example, the presence of certain brain waves that we can measure from the scalp surface. There is a frequency of brain oscillation called gamma oscillations, which are very fast frequencies. They are, on average, 40 cycles per second or 40 hertz. Most people do have gamma oscillations, but when you measure them in a typical average person, you see them for very short bursts. They're typically less than one second in duration, and they accompany states of focused attention. And you see a burst that may last a quarter of a second. 

In these long-term practitioners, we saw these gamma oscillations present for minutes, not seconds. They were very large amplitudes. We actually could see them with the naked eye, which is almost unheard of in this kind of research. And we also saw that they were highly synchronized among different regions of the brain so that they're aware of more things at any given time than most ordinary people. That was actually the very first major finding that we published. 

What did you find with folks who hadn't been meditating for thousands of hours? 

In this case, we're talking about people who've done just a little bit of practice. And so, in certain cases, they're taking a course that lasts two months. And they're meditating a total of somewhere between 24 and 30 hours over this two-month period. And there, we see clear changes in the functioning of the brain. We see changes in networks that are important for attention. We also see changes in networks that are important for the regulation of emotion. And in general, one of the important outcomes of this kind of training is improvements broadly in self-regulation, in our capacity to regulate both attention and emotion. And we see changes in the brain networks that are important in those aspects of self-regulation. 

I realized when I was putting together the questions for this show, that even though I've practiced twice a day for over 35 years, I couldn't actually tell you what meditation is. I mean, I can tell you what I do. I can tell you how it feels. I've had thoughts about what it might mean spiritually. But from both a behavioral and neuroscientific perspective, what is meditation? 

What we might say is that meditation represents a family of exercises that involve the intentional use of our mental capacities to improve our well-being and to nurture human flourishing. You don't need to be in any special place. You don't need to be in any special posture, and you can meditate anywhere any time. 

Twice a day for 35 years is over 25,000 meditations. What's that done to my brain? 

We had one particular very long-term practitioner who made many visits to our laboratory over the course of a 12-year period. And so we have 12 years of serial MRI scans. And of course, we know the date on which each of these scans occurred, and we have lots of normative data now. And we can age and gender match it to know what the normal curve is for brain age over this period of life. 

And so we can compare this very long-term practitioner. This is a practitioner who, when we first tested him, the very first time he came into the lab, had 62,000 hours of lifetime practice. That's a big number. What we found is that he was in the 99th percentile of brain age. That is, he had the slowest brain age of a normative database of 1,000 people over this period of 12 years. 

So that's one possibility for you. Your brain may be aging, and I would predict it would be aging, more slowly than your chronological age.

There are many different styles of meditation, aren't there? Are there broad categories into which they fall? 

Yeah, there are literally hundreds of different kinds of meditation practices, and we have classified meditation into at least three broad families of practice. One we call awareness practices, and that’s where mindfulness kinds of practices would be. The second we call deconstructive practices. The most important prototype for this is a kind of meditation that, for example, is most commonly done by the Dalai Lama but actually has received very little scientific attention. And it's what we call analytic meditation, where through reasoning, there is a deconstruction of the self, if you will. 

One example of that is the sentence that people might commonly use when they might say, “I'm in pain.” If you use that sentence, when you say “I'm in pain,” what does that actually mean? Who is the "I" in this sentence and does it mean that all of you is in pain, every cell in your body? And so what does it mean to say something like that? Or with an emotion when we say, “I'm sad.” What does that actually mean? And what is the "I" in that sentence? So, reflecting on that is really beneficial, and that's a deconstructive practice. 

The third category is constructive practice, actually generating a specific kind of emotion. The prototype for that is compassion meditation, where you're actively and intentionally generating this quality of compassion, or it could be kindness but one of these virtuous emotions. 

Do these different kinds of meditations, broadly speaking, affect the brain differently? 

To give a high-level summary, awareness practices and focused attention and concentration practices mostly affect systems in the brain that are concerned with the regulation of attention. The deconstructive practices are going to affect the default mode of the brain. This is the mode of brain function that has been linked to self-referential thought. The constructive practices, particularly compassion and kindness, will activate positive emotional centers in the brain and also activate, to some extent, perspective-taking areas of the brain that also are involved in empathy. 

I think most folks see meditation as a practice where someone with just immense willpower is somehow able to clear their mind of thoughts. Can you speak to that popular notion? 

Yeah, that is a complete myth and stereotype. Meditation does not involve requiring in any way "getting rid of thoughts." Human minds and brains, at least in large part, are there to produce thoughts. The goal of meditation is not to get rid of thoughts at all. Even the greatest meditation masters, and we've been lucky to study some of them in our laboratory, have thoughts. So, meditation may involve changing our relationship to thoughts, but it doesn't involve getting rid of thoughts.

Let's talk about the power of mindfulness to make positive changes. The research neuroscientist and addiction psychiatrist Jud Brewer at Brown University puts mindfulness practice at the center of treatment programs that he's created for smoking, overeating, and anxiety. To his surprise, however, he found that short moments of mindfulness, many times a day, actually were more effective for changing his patient's unhealthy habits than a traditional meditation practice like the one he had. Have you, in your research, found the same? 

Yeah, I would strongly agree with Jud. I think that that's a very important insight. And we have found that particularly in beginning practitioners, doing really short periods of practice several times a day is much more effective in producing desirable long-term outcomes. 

Let me give you one example from a very recently published study that we did with K-12 public school teachers in the US. This study was actually done during COVID when the stress levels of K-12 educators were skyrocketing. On average, these teachers were practicing for a little less than five minutes a day. And they did it for 30 days, but they did it consistently. We found dramatic improvements in their well-being and reductions in standardized measures of depression and anxiety. And these improvements persisted at a follow-up that we did four months following the intervention. I should say this was done in the context of a rigorous, randomized controlled design. 

The second thing that we did in this particular study, is we said, you don't have to meditate sitting in a chair or sitting on a cushion. You can meditate while you're commuting. You can meditate while you're washing the dishes. You can meditate while you're doing physical exercise. You can meditate while you're brushing your teeth. And it turns out that, 40 percent of the time, people were electing to do these practices actively while they were engaged in other activities of daily living. And the important finding is that the benefits were just as effective, whether they were sitting on a cushion or doing these actively. 

People, in public talks that I give, people often ask, well, “What's the best form of meditation that I could do?” And I'll say, “I'll tell you, the best form of meditation that you could do is the form of meditation that you actually do.”

I want to just talk a little bit more, since it is Mental Health Awareness Month, about anxiety, depression, and the impact of meditation and mindfulness as a treatment for them. How does it really compare to the standard pharmacology? 

My reading of the data is that it's basically comparable in terms of its impact on, for example, symptoms of anxiety and depression. What's different is that it has fewer side effects. That is, meditation has fewer side effects. And we're much more likely to continue with meditation than we are with pharmaceuticals because of the side-effect profiles. 

People don't want to be on these drugs for the rest of their lives. And we don't even know what the safety profile is for very long-term maintenance on these kinds of pharmaceuticals. There is some data to suggest that, in part, because of what I just said, the longer-term effects, particularly in preventing relapse, are more in favor of meditation. 

And then finally, I think the last point to make here, is that I think that there is some reason to think strength-based approaches, rather than deficit-based approaches may ultimately be better. Because there's a lot of reason to believe that many of the skills which are important for flourishing, are actually innate, at least the seeds of them are innate. And so, strengthening them, and cultivating them makes more sense than simply treatments to get rid of the symptoms. 

Finally, there's a lot of excitement now about the use of psychedelics. From what I've read, the experience of taking something like MDMA or psilocybin, sounds a lot like the way some people describe what it's like when they meditate, which begs the question, do psychedelics and meditation affect the brain in the same way? 

There's some research on a mechanistic level looking at the brain, which has found some similarities but also some differences in how psychedelics and meditation might work. In my view, the application of psychedelics to the treatment of specific disorders is different than the application of psychedelics to people who don't have a frank disorder and who otherwise, might be interested in meditation and/or psychedelics for the purposes of further enhancing their well-being or flourishing or spiritual development, whatever that might be. 

We know that the nature of a psychedelic experience is at least in part a function of the guide or facilitator that one has. And just like in meditation, receiving instruction from a really experienced practitioner is very different than receiving instruction from someone who just took an MBSR course. 

And so, the training of these psychedelic guides is a serious issue. And what we're seeing today is a proliferation of these money-making one-year programs at various places around the country to train psychedelic guides for people who, otherwise, had very little experience. And that frightens me, to be honest. 

A second concern is that meditation is not about the experience we have when we're meditating. We can have all kinds of experiences when we're meditating. We can have blissful experiences. We can also have really difficult experiences. And sometimes those really difficult experiences end up being as important, if not more important than the blissful experiences. And it's not about the experience. And psychedelics produce really dramatic experiences. And often, people get very focused on the experience. And people who have had a psychedelic experience often want to recreate that experience. But it really is not about the experience. 

It's not going to help you become a kinder person. And those are the measures, ultimately, which matter. Does your spouse think you're nicer, and you're more cooperative and more altruistic? Both meditation and psychedelics, in their original form, as plant-based medicine were, in the psychedelic case, embedded in Indigenous contexts and the meditation in religious and spiritual contexts, both of which have an ethical container. And I think that this ethical framework is really important and is an active ingredient in the beneficial effects that these might have. 

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