How transcendental meditation is influencing the brain

Transcendental meditation (TM) involves sitting with eyes shut down twice a day for 15–20 minutes, while saying a mantra. The profession has several mental health benefits but it was unknown how those results came about until now.

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New research sheds light on the brain alterations which can cause transcendental meditation.

TM differs from other meditation practices, since focus or visualization is not necessary.

Alternatively, TM practitioners come up with a motto, a word or expression that doesn’t have any real meaning.

The practitioners quietly think about this mantra, enabling the mind to transcend naturally, while both mind and body remain alert, and relaxed.

In a few months, most people can learn TM, and benefits from regular practice can include decreased feelings of stress and anxiety in a person’s daily life.

Previous proof

Some proof of that has been found through report. A study that appeared in Military Medicine in 2013 described TM as a potential post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) treatment for active-duty military personnel.

Similarly, a study that appeared in The Permanente Journal in 2014 found that a TM system was effective in reducing teacher psychological distress.

A study conducted in the same journal in 2016 found significant decreases in pain, anxiety and depression symptoms among prison inmates who studied TM.

One field of study has dived deeper into TM with findings seen in a relatively short period of time to find out exactly how it works.

Now, new findings published in Brain and Cognition point to measurable functional effects in the brain of TM practitioners.

Lowering stress and anxiety

The research took place at the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca Molecular Mind Laboratory in Italy and included 34 participants.

Of the volunteers, 19 had three months to complete two 20-minute TM sessions a day— one morning session and one evening session.

The remaining 15 participants resumed their normal everyday routines.

The researchers used psychometric questionnaires at the start of the study to determine how well each participant has been able to handle stressful situations.

In addition, both participants underwent a functional magnetic resonance imaging study (fMRI) to assess brain activity and functional integration of different brain areas.

Every participant underwent another fMRI test at the end of the 3 months, and again filled out the questionnaires.

The participants who practiced daily TM experienced a significantly less feeling of tension and anxiety after 3 months.

“The community of meditators, specifically following TM practice, showed a decrease in psychometric scores indicating perceived depression, anxiety and stress as opposed to resilience and social skills,” the authors write in the paper.

Results from the fMRI scans also showed that “the reduction in anxiety levels is correlated with specific changes in the communication between various cerebral regions, such as precuneus, left parietal lobe, and insula, all of which play an important role in the regulation of emotions and inner states,” says first author Giulia Avvenuti.

However, Avvenuti points out that “no of those changes[ were] found” in the group that did not practice TM.

Quick changes

Pietro Pietrini, the study organizer and the director of IMT School, says these results pose more concerns about the relation between brain and mind.

“The fact that [TM] has observable effects on the ‘dialogue’ between brain systems involved in affective state control opens up new perspectives for understanding the relationships between brain and mind,” he says.

The findings can also demonstrate how easily TM can have a measurable impact on the brain and people’s feelings.

Organizations like the David Lynch Foundation — which co-funded the research— are encouraging people with trauma or individuals who are experiencing high levels of stress in work and educational settings to practice TM.

The company is likely to use the findings to expand their work around the globe.

In support of this form of meditation this work contributes to the growing body of evidence. This brings up other issues as well.

As clarified by Pietrini, the findings of his team expand “the results of recent research indicating that drug therapies and psychotherapy rely on the same biological mechanism.”

Thus, future research may look at different ways of targeting these biological pathways.

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