In recent years, as mindfulness meditation began to catch on, research, including this open-access paper, claimed that eight weeks of mindfulness could change the structure of the brain. The neuroplasticity on which such studies relied is real enough. But a just-released study has found no evidence that eight-week courses like “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” make so radical a difference:
In new research, a team from the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, led by Richard J. Davidson, found no evidence of structural brain changes with short-term mindfulness training.
Published May 20 in Science Advances, the team’s study is the largest and most rigorously controlled to date. In two novel trials, over 200 healthy participants with no meditation experience or mental health concerns were given MRI exams to measure their brains prior to being randomly assigned to one of three study groups: the eight-week MBSR course, a non-mindfulness-based well-being intervention called the Health Enhancement Program, or a control group that didn’t receive any type of training.
The MBSR course was taught by certified instructors and included mindfulness practices such as yoga, meditation and body awareness. The HEP course was developed as an activity that is similar to MBSR but without mindfulness training. Instead, HEP engaged participants in exercise, music therapy and nutrition practices. Both groups spent additional time in practice at home.
Following each eight-week trial, all participants were given a final MRI exam to measure changes in brain structure. Data from the two trials were pooled to create a large sample size. No significant differences in structural brain changes were detected between MBSR and either control group.University of Wisconsin-Madison, “New research shows no evidence of structural brain change with short-term mindfulness training” at ScienceDaily (May 20, 2022) The paper is open access.
The authors suggest that previous research might have been limited in scope and technology and perhaps by the fact that participants were self-selected. Also, they note that any sort of “wellness intervention” can result in self-reported improvement. The improvement is typically genuine but it may not be firmly linked to the specific intervention. It’s more the fact of “finally doing something” that triggers the positive changes.
In any event, the previous study’s participants were seeking stress reduction and, as the authors of the new study put it, “they may have had more room for improvement than the healthy population studied here”:
In other words, according to the lead author of the new study, behavioral scientist and first author Tammi Kral, “the simple act of choosing to enroll in MBSR may be associated with increased benefit.” The current study also had a much larger sample size, increasing confidence in the findings.University of Wisconsin-Madison, “New research shows no evidence of structural brain change with short-term mindfulness training” at ScienceDaily (May 20, 2022) The paper is open access.
“There was frankly a lot of hype . . . saying that if you meditated for eight weeks you could change the volume of your prefrontal cortex. That is false,” study coauthor Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, tells The Scientist. He adds that beneficial functional and behavioral changes due to meditation are likely to occur much faster, however.Natalia Mesa, “Eight Weeks of Meditation Doesn’t Change the Brain, Study Finds” at The Scientist (May 20, 2022)
These are not very surprising findings. Tibetan Buddhist monks who have spent most of their lives meditating (tummo meditation), often from childhood, can control their metabolism to some extent by mindfulness. But they would be the first to tell us that it takes many years of dedication and training:
For decades, claims that meditating Buddhist monks could greatly raise their temperature or slow their metabolism were assumed to be exaggerations that would yield to a scientific explanation.
The claims did yield to a scientific explanation. The scientific explanation turned out to be that the monks can do exactly that.Mind Matters News, 2019
The monks’ skills, since corroborated, include control of brain waves. But again, they spend much or most of their lives meditating. It would be more surprising if that fact had no effect on their brains than if it does.
Thus the takehome point should not be that mindfulness meditation is debunked but that changing lifetime habits of thought and their signatures in the brain is not a matter of an eight-week course. A fundamental shift in orientation and habits over many years is likely required to produce, say, signatures in the brain.
You may also wish to read: Researchers: Buddhist monks’ bodies decay very slowly at death According to traditional meditation lore, they are in a meditative state (thukdam) until their consciousness is clear; only then does the body begin to decay. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson and colleagues found no evidence of brain activity accompanying the stasis in decay for maybe a week in such monks. (Note: slow decay may be, in part, due to a very ascetic lifestyle.)