Meditation’s Effects on Alpha Brain Waves
A new study out of Brown University has found that a form of mindfulness meditation known as MBSR may act as a “volume knob” for attention, changing brain wave patterns.
What is MBSR?
Originally developed by a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) is based on mindfulness meditation techniques that have been practiced in some form or another for over two millennia. The 8-week MBSR program still follows some of the same principles of the original Buddhist practice, training followers to focus a “spotlight of attention” on different parts of their body. Eventually, it is hoped, practitioners learn to develop the same awareness of their mental states.
In the last 20 years, MBSR and a similar practice called mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) have been included in an increasing number of healthcare plans in the developed world. Some studies have shown that these practices can reduce distress in individuals with chronic pain and decrease risk of relapses into depression.
In this study, Brown University researchers wanted to investigate whether MBSR could have a broader application beyond the clinical realm. Could MBSR impact the alpha brain waves that help filter and organize sensory inputs, improving attentional control?
Researchers divided the study’s 12 healthy adult participants into two groups: a test group that underwent MBSR training for 8 weeks, and a control group that did not. After 8 weeks, a brain imaging technique known as magnetoencephalography (MEG) was used to measure alpha wave patterns in participants.
While hooked up to the brain scanning equipment, participants felt taps on their hands and feet at random intervals. On average, those who trained with MBSR demonstrated faster and greater alpha wave changes in response to these taps. These alpha wave surges indicated that participants were better able to quickly focus attention on the relevant body parts.
How alpha waves affect cognition
Alpha rhythms help filter irrelevant sensory inputs in the brain. Without proper filtering, the ability to carry out many basic cognitive operations can be crippled.
Imagine the simple task of backing a car out of the driveway. In order to reach the street safely, you must hold your destination in mind while steering and ignoring distractions from every modality: news on the radio, children playing at the end of the block, an itch on your foot, the glare of the sun in your eyes. Most people filter out these distractions subconsciously — but should irrelevant stimuli distract you, backing out can become a difficult ordeal.
This Brown University study is in line with other research on meditation, confirming previous findings that link enhanced attentional performance and fewer errors in tests of visual attention with meditation. While it’s still too early to declare meditation a cure-all for everything from attentional control to chronic pain, it’ll be fascinating to see what future research uncovers about this millennia-old tradition’s impact on the brain.
Major Research Studies and Findings
Our work over the past thirty-four years has shown consistent, reliable, and reproducible demonstrations of major and clinically relevant reductions in medical and psychological symptoms across a wide range of medical diagnoses, including many different chronic pain conditions [Kabat-Zinn, 1982; Kabat-Zinn, Lipworth and Burney, 1985; Kabat-Zinn et al, 1986], other medical diagnoses [Kabat-Zinn and Chapman-Waldrop, 1988]; and in medical patients with a secondary diagnosis of anxiety and/or panic [Kabat-Zinn et al, 1992; Miller et al, 1995], over the eight weeks of the MBSR intervention, and maintenance of these changes in some cases for up to four years of follow-up.
We have also seen consistent, reliable, and reproducible demonstrations of significant and clinically relevant increases in trait measures which are usually stable in adulthood, indicative of enhanced psychological hardiness (Kobasa) and greater sense of coherence (Antonovsky) over the course of the eight week intervention, and maintenance of these gains for up to three years of follow-up. The latter measures indicate a heightened sense of self and self-in-relationship, and a greater ability to find coherence and act effectively under high degrees of stress. These changes enhance the experience of self-efficacy in patients and their view of the value of engaging in their own on-going health and well-being through meditation, yoga, and above all, the systematic cultivation of awareness [Kabat-Zinn, Skillings, and Salmon, manuscript submitted].
Below is a selected list of major research studies and/or findings:
1982, the first peer-reviewed scientific paper about mindfulness meditation for chronic pain patients was published in General Hospital Psychiatry by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, based on data gathered in the first years of the Stress Reduction Program at UMass Memorial Medical Center. Other papers describing patient outcomes followed in 1985, 1986, 1988, 1992, 1995, and 1997.
1992, the Inner-City Stress Reduction Clinic began, offering a free stress reduction program for lower-income, inner-city participants in Worcester, MA. The program and associated study continued for seven years, with over 500 people completing the program.
1992, the Massachusetts Committee on Criminal Justice funded a $1M project to bring MBSR to the state prison population. This program continued for 4 years and served 1,350 inmates. In 2006, Marlene Samuelson, PhD, along with James Carmody, PhD, et al, published in Prison Journal, the results, showing substantial reductions in hostility and mood disturbance, and increases in self-esteem.
1998, Jon Kabat-Zinn and colleagues published a randomized trial in Psychosomatic Medicine demonstrating a four-fold increase in the rate of skin clearing in patients with psoriasis practicing mindfulness, while receiving phototherapy.
2003, with Richard Davidson, PhD, Jon Kabat-Zinn and colleagues published a study in Psychosomatic Medicine showing positive changes in brain activity, emotional processing under stress, and immune function in people taking an MBSR course in a corporate work setting in a randomized clinical trial.
2003, the Center received the first federally funded DOD grant to study stress reduction and prostate cancer; James Carmody, PhD, principal investigator.
2006, the Center’s clinical research infrastructure supported two NIH-funded studies of MBSR for hot flashes and asthma in adult populations. James Carmody, PhD, and Lori Pbert, PhD, principal investigators. Pilot data from the hot flash study suggested preliminary positive evidence of the feasibility and efficacy of MBSR in supporting women who are experiencing severe hot flashes. Data from the asthma study suggested MBSR produced lasting and clinically significant improvements in asthma-related quality of life and stress in patients with persistent asthma, without improvements in lung function.
2008, Drs. David Ludwig and Jon Kabat-Zinn published the “Mindfulness in Medicine” article in the Journal of the American Medical Association exploring clinical applications, research challenges, and possible mechanisms of action.
2011, Drs. Britta Hölzel, James Carmody, et al, published “Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density” in Psychiatry Research. Anatomical magnetic resonance (MR) images from 16 healthy, meditation-naïve participants were obtained before and after they underwent the 8-week program. The results suggested that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.