Mindfulness meditation changes the brain in different ways, depending on how long and how intense a person has been practicing, according to new research.

Buddhist monks have long known the benefits of meditation, but Western health practitioners are only beginning to grasp how mindfulness helps its practitioners respond better to external stimuli.

Psychologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have found that, while practicing mindfulness meditation alters neural circuits in the brain, the changes are different for those new to meditation and those who have been practicing for years.

Different Brain Changes In Meditators

In a new study published in the journal NeuroImage, a team of psychologists at the Center for Healthy Minds at UW-Madison reports that brain activity in veteran meditators, new meditators, and non-meditators varied significantly.

The results of the study highlight the differences in the neural networks associated with emotions in the subjects.

"Some changes can occur in a relatively short time while other changes require much more practice," says Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at UW-Madison, who led the study.

Mindfulness meditation involves being aware and accepting of the present situation. Typically, meditators follow the rise and fall of the breath. If they get distracted, the simply bring their awareness back to the breath.

Eight-Week Program Shows Significant Differences  

The researchers recruited more than 150 participants for the study composed of long-term meditators and non-meditators.

The long-term meditators had been practicing mindfulness meditation for several years and had gone on days-long meditation retreats. The new meditators were asked to participate in an eight-week stress reduction program that involved meditation.

The control group had no meditation experience and were asked to join a health enhancement program that did not include meditation.

Following the eight weeks, the researchers asked the participants to look at images and label them as either emotionally positive, negative, or neutral while undergoing an MRI scan of their brains.

Reduced Activity In Amygdala  

The brain scans showed both long-term and new meditators had reduced activity in the amygdala when looking at emotionally positive images. The amygdala is an almond-shaped set of neurons in the brain critical in the processing of emotions.

The researchers find this significant because the amygdala is more of a "salience detector" that lets one know if something important is happening than a part of the brain associated with feeling good.

"A heightened response in the amygdala is more linked to grasping or wanting something," says lead author Tammi Kral, a graduate student in psychology at UW-Madison. "So, it makes sense to not have as strong of a response, even in the face of positive stimuli, because equanimity is a goal."

Although both long-term and new meditators showed lower activity in the amygdala when looking at emotionally negative images, long-term meditators with intense retreat practices showed the most significant reduction. This suggests that practitioners may need to meditate for a long time before being able to reduce their negative reaction to challenging situations.

New meditators also showed increased connectivity between the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with self-regulation and goal tracking. The same pattern was not seen in long-term meditators, suggesting that as one meditates more, emotion regulation becomes more automatic.

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