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Meditate Your Troubles Away

Mindfulness alters brain activity and improves mood, researchers find

Feeling stressed or depressed? You may one day be prescribed meditation rather than medication, following a University of Toronto study that helps explain why meditation improves one’s mood.

A research team that included Professor Adam Anderson of psychology, Norman Farb, a psychology PhD candidate, and Professor Zindel Segal of psychiatry used functional magnetic resonance imaging to map changes in brain activity among people trained in mindfulness meditation.

The researchers scanned the brains of study participants as they completed two tasks. Participants were first asked to judge whether word prompts described their personalities, a task designed to trigger rumination (or what the authors call “narrative” thought patterns). In another task, participants were instructed to monitor their reactions to the words without judgment in an attempt to coax them to be “in the moment.”

People with no meditation training showed very little change in brain activity from task to task. They engaged the middle areas of the brain responsible for personality expression and social behaviour. However, participants who had practised meditation used more primitive areas of the brain on the second task.

“This ability to alter brain activity may explain why so many studies show that mood improves with meditation. Taking a break from the middle regions of the brain, which we tend to overuse, might be just what’s needed to help you feel better,” Anderson says. The study results were published in the December 2007 issue of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

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