by Øyvind Ellingsen
The gold standard of meditation research
In 2007 a 472-page report on meditation research and health was published,(1) commissioned and paid for by the (American) National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a public institution that evaluates new forms of treatment to improve healthcare in the United States. This research report is a gold mine. It contains comprehensive, independent and reliable information on common methods of meditation and how they work. An independent group of experts spent two years evaluating medical and psychological meditation research findings, including seven articles on Acem Meditation by Dr. Erik E. Solberg. The eleven experts were established specialists with no financial or other attachments to meditation organisations. As might be expected, they reached a cautious conclusion regarding the efficacy of meditation as a form of medical treatment, stating that some methods can lower blood pressure and reduce stress ailments.
Awareness and negative thoughts
A more recent and less comprehensive overview article attempts to explain how meditation affects the brain on the basis of hundreds of scientific studies conducted in the last 10-15 years.(2) It is not as scientifically rigorous as the 2007 report but it provides an interesting picture of the results to date.
Meditation often produces a positive experience of relaxation and peace of mind. Several meditation techniques differ from ordinary relaxation in that the electric brain waves slow down. This means more alpha-waves, which indicates less tension, and more theta-waves in the frontal part of the brain, which may be due to the attention towards the object of meditation and perhaps also to the working through of emotions.
Studies of the brain using neuroimaging provide a detailed picture of the areas that are active during meditation. Several meditation techniques seem to increase awareness, stimulate the working through of emotions and regulate physical stress reactions. Some of the literature points out that there is more activity in the brain’s left hemisphere during meditation, as well as an increase in signal substances or receptors associated with wellbeing. These results are linked to a more positive self-image. Other studies emphasise the reduction of common psychological stress symptoms, especially the tendency to ruminate over negative thoughts and poor self-images. The 2009 article identifies promising results in preliminary studies of the effect of meditation on certain psychological ailments.
Different methods – common understanding
The main conclusion in the report from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is that more and better research is needed to clarify the place of meditation in the health service. In particular, good descriptions are needed of the various meditation techniques and the processes they activate.
The report itself probably provides the first systematic overviewof the best-known methods, covering the main elements of the meditation technique; the meditation object; the focusing of awareness; the regulation of breathing; the ideas associated with the method; teaching; and criteria for correct practice. Similarities and differences between various meditation techniques are also described in the book Fighting stress (3).
The working group also attempted to clarify the definition of meditation and distinguish it more accurately from pure relaxation techniques. After four comprehensive rounds of discussion, the experts were divided about the importance of ridding the mind of spontaneous thoughts – a question that differentiates meditation techniques involving a free mental attitude from those involving concentration.
1. Ospina MB et al. 2007. Meditation practices for health: state of the research. AHQR Publication No. 07-E010. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare and Quality.
2. Rubia K 2009. The neurobiology of meditation and its clinical effectiveness in psychiatric disorders. Biol Psychol 82: 1-11.
3. Fighting Stress. Reviews of meditation research. Eds. Davanger S, Eifring H, Hersoug AG. Acem Publishing, Oslo 2008.