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From Jackie with love: Your brain on meditation

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By Jackie Rainford Corcoran
Explore Big Sky Health Columnist

If you’ve considered practicing meditation, here’s a compelling reason to start today. A 2012 study by Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital found that meditation had lasting affects on the brain.

“This is the first time that meditation training has been shown to affect emotional processing in the brain outside of a meditative state,” wrote Gaëlle Desbordes, corresponding author of the report in her conclusion.

The participants were healthy adults with no prior meditation experience. They were split into three groups. One group was taught mindful attention meditation, which brings awareness to breath, thoughts and emotions. A second group studied compassion meditation, which develops loving kindness and compassion for oneself and others. And the third was a control group that took a basic health education course.

Before the start of the classes and after they concluded, 12 participants from each group had a total of 216 MRI brain scans apiece. Meditation was never mentioned to them in the instructions before the MRIs, and it was confirmed that they didn’t meditate while scanning took place. This is significant, as prior studies using MRIs looked at the brains of participants while meditating. The primary conclusion was that the brain does in fact have a lasting change from meditation, especially in the amygdala.

The amygdala is found at the base of the brain and is part of the limbic system, which controls basic emotions like fear, pleasure and anger and drives such as hunger, sex and nurturing of offspring. It’s highly specialized for reacting to stimuli and triggering a response in the body when we feel fear to help us prepare for action – fight or flight.

In both the mindful attention group and the compassion meditation group, the brain scans done after training showed a decrease in activation of the amygdala in response to positive or neutral images. This supported the research team’s theory that meditation improves emotional stability and response to stress.

Participants from the compassion meditation group who reported practicing the most frequently had increased activity in the amygdala when shown negative images of human suffering. This reveals that compassion was heightened in these subjects. The mindful attention group’s brains did not change when shown negative images. No significant changes were seen in the control group.

“Overall, these results are consistent with the overarching hypothesis that meditation may result in enduring, beneficial changes in brain function, especially in the area of emotional processing,” Desbordes wrote.

Not finding time for meditating is a regret I often hear from clients and colleagues. Hopefully, this type of research encourages us to carve out the time and make it a priority. It’s free, you can do it anywhere, and there are no harmful side effects. Visit or if you’re looking for a class to get you started on this journey. Your brain will thank you!

Jackie Rainford Corcoran is an IIN Certified Holistic Health Coach, an NASM Certified Personal Trainer, a public speaker and health activist. Contact her at, or find more at

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