When a little mindfulness goes a long way

After a month of international travel – featuring significant time changes, strict wake-up calls, and responsibility for 17 college students – I have lost whatever claim I had to a regular meditation practice, and I have been looking around for some renewed motivation to get back on the cushion each morning. Although some of the best advice for forming a new habit (or reforming it, in my case) is to start small, one little step at a time, this can be hard to accomplish with meditation when most of the studies showing some cognitive improvement or neurological benefit involve at least an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, with intensive 2-hour training sessions and “homework” meditation in between. You just have to wonder whether five minutes each morning will have much of an effect, and it’s hard to wait for a much later payoff.

This makes research that discusses the benefits of “very brief meditation training” all the more interesting. Christopher Moyer and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Stout investigated brain changes after some certainly brief meditation training: only 5 to 20 minutes of official training at a time, for just 5 weeks, with the college student volunteers meditating for only 3 to 9 hours (6 and a quarter, on average) during the study. Even such a basic introduction to meditation, however, started a shift in brain functioning.

Moyer et al. were interested particularly in the activity in the left-frontal and right-frontal regions of students’ brains. One of the many functions of this region of the brain is related to emotional processing, and there is an asymmetry, or “lateralization”: the left brain responds more strongly to positive emotions, while the right brain responds more to negative ones….an asymmetry that also exists in dogs, and has been used to explain a tail-wag bias where dogs’ tails wag to the right when they’re happy (because the left hemisphere controls the right half of the body).

More activity in the left-frontal region is therefore thought to be a good sign. Using sodium amobarbital to anesthetize the right hemisphere induces a positive mood,  because the left side and its positive emotions would have less competition, and less left-frontal activity may predict depression. A stronger bias to the left, then, could be a very positive thing (pun intended).

And that is what was accomplished by even 3 to 9 hours of meditation over just five weeks. Before the study began, in their very first attempt at meditation, the students who were about to be trained in meditation (black line) and the students who would have to wait (gray line) both showed similar, reasonably balanced brain activity:

Left-right brain asymmetry before training. From Moyer et al. (2011), © Psychological Science

Left-right brain asymmetry before meditation training. From Moyer et al. (2011), © Psychological Science.

After even just 5 weeks meditating about 15 minutes at a time, twice a week, however,  the two groups pull apart in very impressive fashion, with the control group remaining relatively balanced while the meditating group become more left-lateralized:

Left-right brain asymmetry after meditation training. From Moyer et al. (2011), © Psychological Science

Left-right brain asymmetry after meditation training. From Moyer et al. (2011), © Psychological Science.

That is, by the way, and incredibly beautiful pair of graphs from the researcher’s perspective; I imagine EEG researchers often dream of getting such clear patterns out of their studies. It is also exactly the inspiration I was hoping for, a compelling piece of evidence that even if (when) I falter while getting back on the meditation wagon, a few meditation sessions a week for just a few weeks can be enough to begin the process of positive change.

Moyer CA, Donnelly MP, Anderson JC, Valek KC, Huckaby SJ, Wiederholt DA, Doty RL, Rehlinger AS, & Rice BL (2011). Frontal electroencephalographic asymmetry associated with positive emotion is produced by very brief meditation training. Psychological Science, 22, 1277-1279 PMID: 21921291


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