How Meditation Enables Your Brain to Learn Better

The practice of meditation can sound like some hippy-dippy stuff sometimes. To the common person without much exposure to it, meditation can look or feel like nothing more than sitting quietly — an ironically impossible task to the unfamiliar participant. An entry level understanding of meditation starts to take us into its focus on breathing. But beyond that many of us don’t know much else about mediation and its legitimate health benefits. According to a new study from researchers at the University of Surrey, meditation actually has a profound impact on how the brain processes information.


The research published in the Journal of Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience derived from a study of people with varying exposures to meditation, ranging from full-on meditation gurus to people completely unfamiliar with the practice in any way to novice practitioners. All the participants were trained to select images associated with a reward. Pairs of images were associated with varying probabilities of a reward, with some resulting in rewards 80 percent of the time, for example, and lower probabilities of rewards associated with other images, teaching the participants to eventually select pairings that were most likely to result in rewards. 


What researchers found was that the participants who regularly meditated were more successful in picking the paintings that were most likely to offer rewards, indicating they’d developed an ability to learn from positive outcomes. Meanwhile, the non-meditators’ tendency to learn from low probability pairings suggested a tendency to learn from negative outcomes.  


"Humans have been meditating for over 2000 years, but the neural mechanisms of this practice are still relatively unknown,” says Paul Knytl, lead author and Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Surrey. “These findings demonstrate that, on a deep level, meditators respond to feedback in a more even-handed way than non-meditators, which may help to explain some of the psychological benefits they experience from the practice.”


Participants’ reactions were also measured through EEG monitoring, a non-invasive method for recording electrical patterns within the brain. What the EEG helped researchers see was the brain activity during responses to both negative and positive feedback throughout the study. All three groups of participants in the study responded to positive feedback similarly, yet the neurological responses to negative feedback were shown to be highest in the non-meditating group, with the novice group and then the experienced meditators behind them in that respective order. The results of that aspect of the study indicate that the brains of regular and experienced meditators simply are less affected by or don’t respond to negative feedback, with researchers theorizing this is due to the heightened or altered dopamine levels — a feel-good hormone — caused by meditation. Previous studies have shown that dopamine can have this positive effect on our brain’s ability to process information, while this study linked it to meditation specifically. 


"Meditation is a powerful tool for the body and the mind,” says Bertram Opitz, Professor in Neuroimaging and Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Surrey. “It can reduce stress and improve immune function. What we have found is that it can also impact on how we receive feedback, i.e. if we quickly learn from our mistakes or if we need to keep making them before we find the right answer. If it is the latter this can impact how individuals perform in the workplace or classroom. Such individuals may benefit from meditation to increase their productivity or prevent them from falling behind in their studies."


So of course, this study supports the belief that meditation is good for you. There’s a laundry list of health benefits that have been associated with meditation for years, including increased focus, a noted reduction in stress and anxiety, an improvement in cardiovascular health, and even improving sleep health, which has other far-reaching positive health benefits. And the research behind these effects is nothing new. One recent study even went as far as to examine understanding of near-death experiences through the meditation practitioners. 


“The practice of using meditation to gain a better understanding of death is longstanding, particularly in Buddhism where ancient texts exist that aim to help spiritual practitioners prepare for, or gain insight into, the process of dying,” said William Van Gordon, a psychologist, meditation teacher, and one of the authors of the study. “However, to date, no study has sought to investigate whether this practice is ongoing, what psycho-spiritual changes it elicits, and why some advanced meditators choose to engage in it.” 


Meanwhile, another recent study observing meditation’s influence on the brain discovered that meditators have more lucid dreams — an experience in which a dreamer is aware they’re dreaming and can, therefore, control much of what happens —  than non-meditators. 


In that study, just 38 people who had been practicing meditation for at least five years and a little more than three hours per week were measured against 140 non-meditators. 


“Many authors have pointed to strong conceptual and theoretical connections between meditation practice and lucid dreaming, but little empirical work has addressed this idea,” Benjamin Baird of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the corresponding author of the study. “People who regularly practice meditation report more frequent lucid dreams. This may be connected to differences in trait mindfulness that we observed, though further research is needed to test this idea.” 


The trait mindfulness referred to by Baird is a type of meditation meant to give focus to everything a person is sensing and feeling in the moment without interpretation or judgment. The practice itself is done through focused breathing methods, guided images, and other techniques that relax the body to help control or reduce stress. While the effects can vary from person to person, what the new study published in the Journal of Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral

Neuroscience points to is that while meditation didn’t heighten an awareness of positive feedback, it did seem to block a focus on negative feedback, and potentially heightening the brain’s ability to absorb and retain new information that would otherwise be overlooked or take longer to recognize. 

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