Volume 6 / Issue 1 SPRING 2020

S p i r i t ua l i t y S t u d i e s 6 - 1 S p r i n g 2 0 2 0 4 7 Radovan Šoltés 4 Meditation and Brain Changes The word “meditation” is derived from Latinmeditatio – “thinking over” or “reflecting” and from a passive verbmeditari –“to be moved to the middle” or “to descend to the cen - ter”. Although, there are many different forms of meditation their common feature is focusing attention to experience the present moment in other than just analytical manner. This entails a shift of automated thinking processes that leads to a greater control over the emotional dimension. Meditative reading, just as meditation itself, positively affects the way in which humans experience life. Neuroscientists found out that the meditation process reinforces the changes that occur in our brain, when properly applied. A wave of meditation research started during the 1960s. Initially, the researches involved observing EEG recordings during meditation. However, the findings presented by various groups of researchers often differed. The significant change in the meditation research came with the use of modern methods of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) or positron emission tomography (PET). Researchers use these scanning techniques to uncover what is happening in a human brain during meditation (Burian 2010, 231). There are many schools and styles of meditation, but their positive effects are very similar. From the neural network perspective, the researches demonstrate certain “disconnection” of attention from the outside world, which is manifested by heightened activity in most cerebral cortical regions towards the stable and steady brain function. The brain of a longterm meditator shows a different activity of the same cortical regions in comparison to people who do not meditate. Surely, meditation requires some effort that brings about changes in brain structure. Comparisons of long-term meditators and non-meditators showed a higher volume of grey matter in the areas that control heart activity and breathing bringing about positive changes in cognitive functions, emotionality and immune system. The correlation between duration of meditation practice and cortical thickness was determined in two specific areas (Koukolík 2012, 185–186). Other studies have shown that the brain of people who practiced meditation showed more intense activity in the prefrontal cortex and, on the other hand, decreased amygdala activity, in comparison to ordinary people. Moreover, it has been proven that the great meditation masters were able to suppress their fight-or-flight response, i.e. the elementary physiological response to loud noises or other stimuli mediating by the amygdala (Stossel 2014, 55–56). Meditation also led to decrease in the amygdala density (Desborders et al . 2012). It means that meditation has a positive effect on emo - tional regulations and on control of response to stimuli. Another research showed strong negative correlation between the activity of prefrontal cortex and the right amygdala only in participants high in mindfulness. The ability of prefrontal cortex to regulate emotional centers, the amygdala in particular, has been the focus of research for quite some time. The present findings suggest that the mechanism enabling mindfulness to deal better with difficult situations evoking negative emotions is indeed the enhanced ability of prefrontal cortex to regulate emotional centers (Creswell et al . 2007). This study has also been confirmed by researchers from Bos - ton University. For eight weeks, they were investigating two groups of people; one of which comprised adults with no prior meditation training. The findings suggested that medita - tion can have measurable effects on the amygdala response, and it can alter this response even if not practiced regularly (Desbordes et al . 2012, 292). It is well documented that the amygdala is an integrative center for basic emotions that could save the person’s life in the “fight-or-flight” response. On the other hand, these emotions can cause a major problem in the person’s life and relationships if they are not under conscious control. Obviously, we can hardly control the automatic system of our brain by willpower only. By working on the way in which we respond to the stimuli we can change the effect they have on us, and even use them to our advantage. This can be achieved through meditation, as suggested by Jonathan Haidt (Haidt 2006, 32). Surely, a certain form of behavioral regula - tion is also motivated by the social environment. However, it becomes apparent that meditative type of prayer has much greater impact. Jan Burian says that although the research into meditation from the neurological perspective is still in its infancy, we can highlight the significance of that research with the following points. First, this research contributes to better comprehension of the neural foundations for focused and mindful attention and coping with emotions. Secondly, we can learn about the extent to which neuroplasticity enables the systematic development of these complex abilities. These research findings serve as empirical grounds for the expla - nation of neuronal mechanisms that are used in psychotherapeutic techniques utilizing the elements of meditative practice. Neuroscientific and therapeutic evidence of effec -