Research on Meditation

We often hear that the benefits of meditation are backed by research. If, like me, you believe that meditation is a powerful tool for personal, professional and societal transformation, this is a great thing.  In our society scientific evidence equates to trust, acceptance, funding and so on. But, what exactly do the results of this research tell us? And where is it coming from? Below I've compiled a list of fairly recent research from reputable sources (note: I am not a scientist, therefore not trained to review research for quality so used reputation and outside citations as markers) and summarized their findings for your reading pleasure.

Proceed with caution, not all research is created equal.

A 2007 study designed to "review and synthesize the state of research on a variety of meditation practices" analyzed results from 813 meditation studies on Mantra meditation, Mindfulness meditation, Yoga, Tai Chi, and Qi Gong. 

Their conclusion?: "Scientific research on meditation practices does not appear to have a common theoretical perspective and is characterized by poor methodological quality. Firm conclusions on the effects of meditation practices in healthcare cannot be drawn based on the available evidence. Future research on meditation practices must be more rigorous in the design and execution of studies and in the analysis and reporting of results."

While discernment is recommended when reading headlines and research, I'd like to note that I personally have had the experience of a regular meditation practice transforming the way I interact with the world and have heard this to be anecdotally true for many others, so I would place myself in the camp of 'perhaps scientists should be more diligent.' (I also believe that not everything can be explained by science, but this is a digression for another time).

The research:

A 2009 study found that brief meditation training reduced fatigue and anxiety, increased mindfulness, improved visuo-spatial processing and enhanced the ability to sustain attention.   

A 2011 study led by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School found that meditators with no prior experience who had gone through an 8-week MBSR program had thickening in four brain regions including areas involved in mind wandering, cognition, emotional regulation, empathy, compassion and that contain regulatory neurotransmitters. The amygdala which controls automatic responses associated with anxiety, fear and stress got smaller (source). An earlier study conducted in 2005 by some of the same researchers found that "meditation may be associated with structural changes in areas of the brain that are important for sensory, cognitive and emotional processing. The data further suggest that meditation may impact agerelated [sic] declines in cortical structure."

A 2011 study led by Yale University investigated brain activity in experienced meditators compared to meditation-naive controls as they performed several different meditations (Concentration, Loving-Kindness, Choiceless Awareness). They found that meditation changes the brain in ways that decreased mind-wandering (and therefore potentially unhappiness).

A 2012 review of scientific research on the benefits of mindfulness for school children found that paired with strong support of mindfulness research on adults, these studies suggest mindfulness to have beneficial  results on the emotional wellbeing, mental health, ability to learn and even the physical health of students. The reviewer did note that these studies were not without 'flaws and caveats.'

A 2012 study conducted by researchers at Stanford University compared Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) with aerobic exercise for patients who experienced social anxiety. They found that MBSR practice was "associated with decreases in negative emotion and social anxiety symptom severity, and increases in attention-related parietal cortex neural responses when implementing attention regulation of negative self-beliefs." 

In 2014 researchers from The Johns Hopkins University reviewed 18,753 citations, finding 47 trials worthy of analysis. Their review found mindfulness meditation programs had moderate evidence of improved anxiety and depression at 8 weeks and pain. They also found there to be low evidence of improved stress/distress and mental health–related quality of life.

A 2015 study conducted by researchers at UCLA found meditation to help slow the aging process in the brain, they found there to be less age-related gray matter decline in meditators compared to non-meditators.

A 2015 study conducted by researchers at Harvard University found that mind-body relaxation techniques can reduce the need for medical services. People in this particular relaxation program used 43% fewer medical services than they did the previous year.