The Current State of Mindfulness Meditation Research
Not all forms of meditation produce the same effects on our brains or our behavior. The important outcome of all of the research on brain changes due to meditation is that different meditation practices affect the growth and potential of different parts of the brain. Imaging studies have shown that depending on what type of meditation is practiced, different neurological processes and therefore abilities are strengthened due to growth in different areas of the brain. For example, focusing on sensations of loving compassion, as in Vipassana meditation, cultivates growth of neurons in the frontal brain and thalamus, which regulates positive emotions and sensory processes. When focusing on a state of ecstatic joy, there is development of the reward centers of the brain, such as the nucleus accumbens, which regulates feelings of pleasure. Focusing on repeating the words of a mantra, as in transcendental meditation, stimulates growth in the left parietal lobe of the frontal cortex, responsible for processing words. In other words what you practice is what you get.
Until recently neurologists believed the number of brain cells we were born with were all we would get, with the number only decreasing throughout our life. Sometimes faster and sometimes slower but always decreasing until we died. New research findings on neuroplasticity of the brain, meaning growth of the brain and the ability of the brain to form new connections within itself has been shown to be stimulated by meditation. With the ability to use mindfulness practices to promote this plasticity and regulate our own behavior and emotions, we are now able to actually change the way our brain works and the way we think.
There have been over one thousand studies on the effects of meditation in just the last 2 years. Despite the enthusiastic reporting of positive findings on the effects of meditation on the brain, it should be pointed out that mindfulness meditation research is a young field, and many studies are yet to be replicated.
The use of adequate controls is tricky in studies that look at changes in behavior because it is harder to create a control group (or placebo) when the treatment is not just taking a pill but an action.
Also, different teachers have different styles, techniques and abilities. There are also many different types of meditation practices. As an example, reported positive results based on a study done with a group of people learning one style of meditation taught by one particular teacher doesn’t guarantee that the same benefits will be attained from attending another session of the same class. If it’s the same type of meditation, but taught by a different teacher, or if it’s a different style of meditation taught by a different teacher, regardless of the fact that it may be perceived by the general public as being the same, the effects on the brain may differ.
More continuity in study design needs to be agreed upon within the scientific community that is conducting these tests and then reporting on them.