The UCLA research team, led by neuroscientist Eileen Luders, scanned the brains of 23 longtime meditators and found the cortex had larger amounts of gyrification than 16 control subjects, and that the increased volume of cortical folding correlated with the number of years a subject had meditated.
The potential benefits of increased cortical gyrification is still theoretical and more research is needed, Luders said by e-mail.
In a new imaging study published Nov. 1 in the online journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers at Mass. General found evidence that meditation may cause changes in the way the amygdala fires up in response to emotional stimuli, according to lead author Gaëlle Desbordes, a neuroscience research fellow at both Mass. General and Boston University.
The study compared three groups, each with 12 participants. One group practiced compassion-based meditation; the second practiced mindful-attention meditation; and the third, a control group, took part in health discussion sessions.
The compassion training included basic meditation techniques also used by the mindful-meditation group, but also asked participants to focus on compassion for themselves, family, and people they did not know.
Study participants were shown positive, negative, and neutral images while their brains were scanned three weeks before and three weeks after the eight-week program.
Researchers found that after the eight-week program, those in the compassion-based meditation group had an increased brain response to images of others’ suffering, but that the increased responsiveness did not create more stress. The sensitivity to others’ suffering also correlated with a decrease in a participant’s depression, Desbordes said.
She added, “even though it may seem paradoxical, being more in tune with others’ suffering makes us feel less depressed, because feeling connected to others even through hardship is a positive feeling.”
She said study results suggest that meditation training may affect emotional processing not just during meditation, but in everyday life. “We believe that this may indicate a change in character trait,” Desbordes said
Back at the Advaita Meditation Center, Fairbairn recalls that when she first began to meditate 30 years ago, the practice was considered somewhat fringe. “If you mentioned meditation to people back then, they looked at you funny,” she said.
Today, you can find meditation groups at spiritual centers like Advaita, but also at colleges, social meet-ups, yoga centers, and medical clinics.
“Now it’s everywhere,” says Fairbairn, “classified as much under health as it is under spirituality.”