Meditation doesn’t just affect the way you feel, new studies show that it actually changes the way your brain processes information. In two recent studies, people with meditation practices not only reacted differently to stimulus than those without, their brains handled the input in entirely different ways.
One study, conducted at Baylor Medical College in Houston, engaged participants in the Ultimatum Game from within a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. The game gives one participant an amount of money to split between themselves and another participant in anyway they like. If the second participant accepts the offer they both get that amount; however, if they reject the offer neither gets anything. In this game, which is a well-known tool in psychological studies, the second person’s perception of fairness often determines the outcome, as they tend to reject the offer if they feel it is too lopsided.
In this experiment, nearly three quarters of control subjects rejected the deal, while more than half of the participants with a meditation practice accepted it. The MRI results showed that the non-meditators processed the proposal using emotion – specifically the area of the brain associated with the feeling of disgust.
Interestingly, although the meditation practitioners appeared to be more rational in their decision making process, they were not accessing the logic center of the brain either. The MRIs showed that the meditators were processing the deal with the area of the brain associated with introception, which interprets the physiological sensations within the body.
In interviews after the study many meditators expressed that difference doesn’t equate to fairness or a lack thereof. The researcher concluded that this outlook was likely to have made the meditators less reactive to uneven offers within the game.
This lack of reactivity may translate to even more serious stimuli, such as the perception of pain. In a study at the University of Montreal, a painful heat was applied to each participant’s calf while they were in an MRI scanner. As in the other study, the MRI results showed that the meditators and the control group accessed different parts of their brains. It appeared that although both felt the pain, the participants with meditation practices were able to halt the thought process that would label the sensation as such. Cutting off this process seems to have allowed them to regulate the way their brain perceived the pain, and they consistently reported less pain than the control subjects.
The implications of these studies could affect the way psychologists and physicians think about neurological processes and emotions. For the rest of us, these studies are powerful reminders of the real difference mindfulness practices can make in one’s life, perceptions, and interactions with the world.