Clinical research reveals that meditation training may offer beneficial outcomes for individuals and society for (1) increasing acts of cooperation, and feelings of empathy & unity; (2) promoting health and well being along a spectrum of indicators; and (3) enhancing cognitive flexibility, attention, and memory.

A sample of recent clinical research on meditation follows. It is not intended as a comprehensive review; resources for ongoing clinical studies are listed at the end. Nevertheless, this sampling of research may demonstrate a sound scientific basis for employing meditation training.

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Meditation to Promote Cooperation and Empathy

As our societies grow increasingly complex and interrelated, the need for cooperation across religious, cultural, and national lines is ever more imperative. Solutions to ethnic and religious conflicts, and to the challenges of global health and poverty, are all dependent on better cooperation, and its basis in mutual understanding and empathy. It has been pointed out that our survival as a species depends on our “ability to build mutually beneficial relationships with others” (Brewer, 2004). Meditation may enhance connectedness and empathy, even when the meditation is relatively brief in duration. Research results include:

  • “In general, empathy seems to enable people to relate to others in a way that promotes cooperation and unity rather than conflict and isolation.” Konrath, S. et al. (2011). Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis. University of Michigan.
  • “Meditation can promote more harmonious relationships of all kinds, and can promote compassion for others. There are measurable physical changes in the brain regions that play a role in empathy.” Lutz, A. et al. (2008). Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise. Public Library of Science.
  • Massachusetts General Hospital (the largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School) found measurable changes in areas of the brain’s grey matter associated with empathy, awareness, and memory among those participating in an eight-week mindfulness meditation program. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging (January 21, 2011).
  • Even a few minutes of meditation increases feelings of social connection toward strangers on both explicit and implicit levels. “These results suggest that this easily implemented [meditation] technique may help to increase positive social emotions and decrease social isolation.” Hutcherson, C. et al. (2008). Loving-Kindness Meditation Increases Social Connectedness. Stanford University.
  • Secular, analytical compassion meditation may enhance empathy and increase activity within neural regions of the brain corresponding to empathy. Mascaro J. et al. (2012). Compassion meditation enhances empathic accuracy and related neural activity. Oxford University Press.

Meditation and Cognition

Meditation appears to have an impressive array of benefits for different aspects of brain function, including enhanced attention, working memory, executive function, and cognitive flexibility to meet new and unexpected conditions and to detect incorrect cognitive evaluations which would usually go unnoticed. Research results include:

  • “[A] number of recent studies corroborate our finding that meditation practice and increased mindfulness are related to improved attentional functions and cognitive flexibility. Some of these studies furthermore contribute evidence that these observed changes may be reflected in structural as well as functional changes of the brain. Malinowski, P. & Moore, A. (2009). Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility. Consciousness and Cognition.
  • “The gained cognitive flexibility provides the mental space to detect incorrect and unwholesome cognitive evaluations, which would usually go unnoticed…” Id.
  • “Meditators showed higher levels of mindfulness, better attentional performance and higher cognitive flexibility.” Id. “Cognitive flexibility is here understood as the human ability to adapt cognitive processing strategies to face new and unexpected conditions and is intrinsically linked to attentional processes.” Id.
  • Mind-wandering adversely affects cognitive performance. Smallwood, McSpadden, & Schooler (2007). When attention matters: The curious incident of the wandering mind. Memory & Cognition.
  • Mindfulenss training may allow people to “disengage from the top-down influences of prior learning and create new avenues by which the mind’s energy and information can be regulated.” Siegel, D. (2006). Mindfulness training and neural integration: differentiation of distinct streams of awareness and the cultivation of well-being. Oxford University Press.
  • “Mindful awareness may also be seen as a way to…create new states of information flow in the course of daily life.” Id.
  • “This narrative neural activity suggests that without mindfulness training people may naturally continue to be unable to ‘just live in the present’ and instead are filled with ruminations and self-referential judgments.” Id.
  • “[M]indfulness practice reduces cognitive rigidity…due to rigid and repetitive thought patterns formed through experience.” Greenberg J. et al. (2012). Mind the Trap: Mindfulness Practice Reduces Cognitive Rigidity. PLoS ONE.
  • “The results suggest that participation in MBSR [Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction] is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes…” Holzel B. et al. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Harvard Medical School.
  • Meditation training of twenty minutes during four sessions improved visuo-spatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning in undergraduate students. These findings, among those without previous meditation training, are consistent with finding among adept meditators and “provide robust evidence that brief MM [Mindfulness Meditation] enhances sustained attention.” Zeidan, F., et al. (2010). Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and Cognition.
  • Meditation positively affects a region of the brain (the left putamen) involved in attention processing and cognitive flexibility. Pagnoni, G., and Cekic, M. (2007). Age effects on gray matter volume and attentional performance in Zen meditation. Neurobiology of Aging.
  • The benefits of meditation can carry over into everyday life, i.e. when not meditating. Desbordes, G. et al. (2012). Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdale response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Massachusetts General Hospital.
  • “Superior attentional performance was obtained for meditators compared with controls…” Cahn, B.R. & Polich, J. (2006). Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies. Psychological Bulletin.
  • Meditation, compared to a relaxation training control group, significantly improved executive attention. Greeson, J. (2008). Mindfulness Research Update. Duke University Medical Center.
  • “Brain regions associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing were thicker [favorably enhanced] in meditation participants than matched controls.” Lazar, S. et al. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. NeuroReport

Interestingly, even brief meditative practice can produce compelling changes in brain function.

  • “[B]rief mindfulness training significantly improved visuo-spatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning. Our findings suggest that 4 days of meditation training can enhance the ability to sustain attention, benefits that have previously been reported with long-term meditators.” Zeidan, F. et al. (2010). Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and Cognition.
  • “Interestingly, the benefit of mindfulness was not restricted to years of experience and was found even following a six-week intervention.” Greenberg J. et al. (2012). Mind the Trap: Mindfulness Practice Reduces Cognitive Rigidity. PLoS ONE.
  • The results suggest “that the cultivation of specific meditative states, which are relatively short-term, can result in enduring changes in mental function, i.e. the long-term development of certain traits. Desbordes, G. et al. (2012). Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdale response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Massachusetts General Hospital.
  • “Even a brief (7-min.) exercise in cultivating positive regard was sufficient to induce changes of small to moderate effect size.” Hutcherson, C. et al. (2008). Loving-Kindness Meditation Increases Social Connectedness. Stanford University.
  • Importantly, after experiencing some success during a brief training, individuals may be more inclined to continue practice. (Grossman et al. 2004.)

Meditation and Stress Reduction

Reducing stress has been a key benefit attracting people to practice meditation.

  • The Mayo Clinic advises the public that “Meditation can bring a sense of calm, peace and balance that benefits emotional well-being and overall health. Meditation can be a simple, fast way to reduce stress. Meditation reduces negative emotions. And these benefits don’t end when your meditation session ends.” Mayo Clinic Staff (2011).
  • “[P]articipants reported significantly reduced perceivedstress. Reductions in perceived stress correlated positively with decreases in right basolateral amygdala gray matter density.” Holzel B. et al. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Harvard Medical School.
  • “Stress has significant adverse effects on health and is a risk factor for many illnesses.” Id. An astonishing 60% of doctor visits may be the result of stress-related conditions. The Science of Meditation. Time Magazine, Aug. 4, 2003.
  • According to Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, “Any condition that’s caused or worsened by stress can be alleviated through meditation.”

Meditation and Well-Being

People in a variety of settings can experience enrichment of their sense of wellbeing, self-awareness, and capacity to cope as a result of meditation.

  • “In a study conducted through Harvard University, researchers found that people spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy. Mindfulness provides an antidote to this mind wandering through the conscious cultivation of present-moment awareness.” Killingsworth, M. and Gilbert, D. (2010).
  • There is “emerging evidence that mindfulness training is associated with greater meaning and peace in one’s life… as well as enhanced relationships with others.” Greeson, J. (2008). Mindfulness Research Update. Duke University Medical Center.
  • “In addition to the mental health benefits of meditation practice and cultivating mindful awareness in daily life, simply being in a mindful state momentarily is associated with a greater sense of well-being.” Id.
  • Regular meditation practice can produce long-term changes in one’s health and well-being, including a deepened sense of calm and increased sense of comfort. Cahn, B.R. & Polich, J. (2006). Meditatative states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies. Psychological Bulletin, 132.
  • As a result of practicing meditation, employees in a corporate setting showed changes in front brain electrical activity consistent with the experience of positive emotions. Id.
  • “Research on mindfulness supports the idea that cultivating greater attention, awareness and acceptance through meditation practice is associated with lower levels of psychological distress, including less anxiety, depression, anger, and worry.” Greeson, J. (2008). Mindfulness Research Update. Duke University Medical Center.
  • “Mindfulness meditation has been reported to produce positive effects on psychological well-being that extend beyond the time the individual is formally meditating.” Holzel B. et al. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Harvard Medical School.

Meditation and Medical Conditions

  • “[T]he most consistent and strongest physiological effects of meditation practices in healthy populations occur in the reduction of heart rate, blood pressure, and cholesterol.” Meditation Practices for Health: State of the Research Prepared for U.S. Department of Health and Human Services By University of Alberta Evidence-Based Practice Center (June 2007).
  • Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles conducted a 16-week trial revealing that patients with coronary heart disease who meditated had significantly lower blood pressure.
  • According to the Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation, through the practice of meditation 80% of hypertensive patients had lowered their blood pressure and decreased their medication, with the results lasting at least three years.
  • Among 15,000 patients participating in a University of Massachusetts Medical School study, there was a 35% reduction in the number of medical symptoms and a 40% reduction in the number of psychological symptoms among those who meditated.
  • “Meditation practice in the medical setting is proving to be an excellent adjunctive therapy for many illnesses and an essential and primary means of maintaining holistic health and wellness. Rather than being a fringe or marginal concept, meditation is now widely known and accepted as a beneficial mind-body practice by the general public and in the scientific community.” Fortney, L and Taylor, M. (March 2010). Meditation in medical practice: a review of the evidence and practice. Primary Care: Clinics in Office Practice 37:1. University of Wisconsin.

Meditation and Living With Cancer

  • Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center reports that meditation “can lead to powerful reductions in stress, anxiety, and depression. Meditation and guided imagery can alleviate pain, as well as other symptoms. Through meditation, we can reconnect with our unique inner strengths, which can be strong allies during times of illness or stress.”
  • The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute describes: “Consistent benefits – improved psychological functioning, reduction of stress symptoms, enhanced coping and well-being in cancer outpatients – were found… Mindfulness meditation has clinically relevant implications to alleviate psychological and physical suffering of persons living with cancer.”
  • A 2009 study compared the outcomes of breast cancer patients who incorporated meditation into care with those who did not. The group who meditated demonstrated improved emotional well-being, social well-being, and better overall mental health. Nidich et al. (2009).

Meditation and PTSD

  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is associated with decreased volume of the brain’s hippocampus region; volume loss in this region appears to be reversible. Gould et al. (2000); Jacobs et al. (2000). The study demonstrates changes in the brain’s gray matter concentration following an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course compared to a control group. “Hypothesized increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus were confirmed.” Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Holzel B. et al. (2011). Harvard Medical School.

Links to selected clinical research:

Harvard Medical School

Massachusetts General Hospital

National Institutes of Health

Stanford University School of Medicine

University of Massachusetts Medical School

University of Wisconsin

© 2014 Interfaith Mediattion Intiative




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"I've co-led two interfaith meditation events, each time with Jewish and Muslim faith leaders...I connected with the devotion of my colleagues, and the language of their meditations became a portal for me to a place beyond words.” Reverend Randy Lord-Wilkinson, Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Maryland; IMI meditation co-leader