Of Mellowness and Mice: The Effects of “Meditation” Training on the Mouse Brain

Meditation word cloud


Clients often ask me, “What is the effect of meditation practice?” I’ve written about effects of meditation here and here.

Today the New York Times had an interesting article called Of Mice and Mindfulness, which answers that question a little bit. They report a study conducted at the University of Oregon by Cristopher Niell and others.

They cite past studies that found that people who meditate tended to have more white matter around the anterior cingulate cortex, which is a part of the brain that regulates emotion. Meditation also increases the theta wave activity of the brain. Some researchers have wondered if the increased theta wave activity increased the white matter.

Theta waves run at a frequency of 8 Hz, and researchers at the University of Oregon figured out that they could test the effects of this frequency with a very complicated research design. Previously scientists there had developed a breed of mice that had genes that were responsive to light. By beaming light into the mice brains at the same frequency as human theta waves they found that this turned on the neurons in the anterior cingulate cortexes. The researchers also beamed light at a frequency of 1Hz and 40 Hz as a control.

Each mouse got 30 minutes of light therapy for 20 days, which was an attempt to mimic the intensity of human meditation. After, the mice that were exposed to the 8 Hz theta wave frequencies of light were mellower; they hung out in the lighted area of a special cage, while their non-meditating counterparts hid in the shadows! (The 1Hz group also were mellower, which does call into question the specificity of the theta frequency needed to create mellowness in mice.)

So what can we learn about this study of the murine mind? (Yes, who knew that the word murine refers to mice and other related rodents.) The research suggests that there is something about lower frequency brain stimulation that leads to lowered anxiety and increased bravery. I think it’s probably a stretch to assume that this research directly supports the same concept in humans, since nobody is going to replicate this research with people. Nevertheless, it adds to the idea of the mechanism of meditation, which may actually change your brain when practiced diligently for a month.

Now I’m going to take a writing break and meditate…

P.S.  Please see my article How to Meditate if you want to start meditating. 

New Study Suggests You Can Reprogram Your Brain in Four Days!

Many previous studies have shown through the use of neuroimaging that meditation can change the brain. But most of those studies have looked at medium to long-term meditators. Some looked at monks who had meditated for decades, and some looked at new meditators who had meditated daily for 6 to 8 weeks. At least this much meditation practice was thought to be necessary to create measurable changes in the brain.

But a new study at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte suggests that brain changes may happen much more quickly, in as few as four days!

Student volunteers were randomly assigned to either practice mindfulness meditation or listen to the reading of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, for 20 minutes a day, for four days. The groups were tested using behavioral tests of mood, memory, visual attention, attention processing, and vigilance. The meditative practice was a simple mindfulness technique.  Participants were told to focus on their breath, and that when thoughts distracted them to notice the thought, and then refocus on the breathing.

What were the results? Both groups improved in mood, but only the meditation group improved in cognitive measures. In one challenging mental task, the meditation group did 10 times better than the reading group. It appeared that meditation improved the ability to sustain attention and vigilance.

This is an exciting study which hopefully will be replicated and expanded with their neuroimaging to see if there are functional or structural brain changes after brief meditation practice.

To summarize, it appears that a brief four-day practice of mindfulness meditation can significantly improve cognitive functioning that is related to attention and vigilance.

How lasting is this effect? Does it wear off in hours, days, etc.? What is the dose response ratio of meditation to cognitive functioning improvement? For instance, would eight days of meditation practice create even more cognitive improvement?

In any case, it’s worth practicing meditation at least briefly to see its effects on your mind and your emotions. Commit to 20 minutes a day for one week, and see what happens for you.

Now I’m off to meditate…

Copyright © 2010 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D. /The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions