Meditation

Authored by Robert Chen • 
December 5, 2016

Meditation is a widely performed practice throughout the world, and dates back to as early as 1500 BC in India and 6th century BC in China.1In fact, the NIH estimates that 8% of American adults do some form of meditation.2Meditation is commonly known to provide benefits in aspects of life including mood, productivity, and improving social interactions.3

Now, meditation can be made easier to practice than before, due to the rise of tools such as Headspace.com. Given this trend, along with the general rising interest in biohacking and cognitive improvement, it is interesting to examine cognitive benefits of meditation apart from mood-related improvements. The current consensus is that meditation helps with elevating the mood, but there currently is not as much (scientifically rigorous) evidence that meditation increases other aspects of cognition like intelligence or attention span.

Clinical Research on Meditation

There's a decent amount of interest in the science community on meditation. Currently, there are 536 studies registered on ClinicalTrials.gov that study meditation as an intervention. A majority of these studies are examining the effects of meditation on stress and anxiety, in either patients without other comorbidities, or patients with diseases such as multiple sclerosis, congestive heart failure, and cancer.

Meditation and Intelligence

We've heard a lot about meditation's effects on stress and anxiety, but intelligence is another interesting facet and the scientific research around it seems promising. In a study involving two twins, it was suggested that mediation increased the intelligence quotient (IQ) of participants by an average of 23 points after performing the meditative tasks during 40 separate sessions of therapy. IQ was measured by the WISC-III test for intelligence.4Most of the benefits actually lasted for a period of up to 52 months after the intervention, which is interesting (see chart below). Note that all participants in this study, started with lower than average IQ (as low as 60-70), and had their IQ raised to near-average levels. A similar change in IQ points may or may not persist in participants starting out with her IQ scores.

meditation_iq_change

In a brain imaging study, it was found that occipitotemporal lobe thickness was correlated with the slowed breathing rates during meditation, as found with functional MRI.

What will be important to delve into for future research is to tease out the effects of meditaiton, on both fluid intelligence (ability to solve novel problems in new situations) and cyrstallized intelligence (ability to use knoweldge one has already attained). It's been indicated before that meditation can improve fluid intelligence. Furthermore, there is a very limited body of knowledge on the effects of meditaiton on intelligence.

Meditation and Brain Structure

Brain imaging studies in meditating patients typically tend to look at structural correlates to the practice of meditation. In one of the most well-performed studies, resaerchers recruited 20 people from a local meditation community and 20 matched controls, and measured the differences in cortical thickness between the groups with fMRI. The meditators had an average of 9 years of meditation experience practicing an average of 6 hours per week. The study found that those who meditated, had greater cortical thickness, in an area called the occipitotemporal lobe (typically playing a role in breathing) compared to those who did not. This may have been due to the breathing control practices and increased breath awareness that meditators can cultivate.5

meditation_brain_cortical_thickness

In a brain imaging study, it was found that occipitotemporal lobe thickness was correlated with the slowed breathing rates during meditation, as found with functional MRI.

Editorial Opinion

Meditation is made easier for the public to do these days due to tools such as Headspace.com. Due to its popularity there are many off-hand anecdotal accounts of people improving their mood, courage, productivity, and even IQ with it. However, it should be noted that the effect of meditation on these measures hasn't been studied widely in a scientific manner. Given that 8% of Americans adults meditate, however, this does make for an interesting field of future reseach, however.

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