Meditation and it’s effects on subjective well-being and brain structure: A research proposal and literature review

For this semester’s culminating project on happiness, I have chosen to research the effects of meditation on happiness and brain structure, and how this could reduce the frequency of physicians prescribing SSRIs for depression. I will present this information in the form of a question and provide evidence to support the hypothesis. I have found six research articles that support my hypothesis and that help intrigue future research.

The development of this research idea comes from a somewhat selfish baseline in my personal pursuit of happiness. After suffering from post-partum depression I was prescribed Zoloft by my primary care physician and found that the medication created in me a flat affect and amotivational syndrome much like that mentioned in Dr. Walsh’s case study (Walsh, Victor, & Bitner, 2006). The amotivational syndrome drove me to neglect housework and school work further compounding my depression and anxiety. After winging myself off of the SSRI, I dedicated myself to daily prayer and meditation that has significantly increased my subjective well-being, while still allowing me to experience a full and optimal range of emotions.  It was when I viewed the documentary called The Happy Movie and saw the intriguing research done on the effects of meditation on the structure of the brain and its ability to increase happiness that I made it my goal to further examine this area of study especially since I had seen firsthand how meditation changed my emotional state. I believe that this research will not only be beneficial to myself but to many others who struggle in their pursuit of happiness.

Many scientist tend to disregard social sciences because of the difficultly in measuring emotions using empirical research and scientific methods. What makes this research so impactful is the concrete results obtained by neurofeedback when examining the brain functions and brain structures of meditators.  It leaves little room for scientific argument against the research results. Of course with all studies, there are limitations and questions in causation or correlation, but in these studies the results are undeniable when examining the increased gray and white matter in the brains of meditators. The positive correlation between increased thickness of gray and white matter in different regions of the brain, and meditation are valuable in helping people improve subjective well-being and hopefully lower rates of depression.

What does all this talk of gray and white matter in the brain mean?  Some neuroscientist will liken the brain to a muscle that with increased usage can grow stronger and open it’s range of function.  The more a person activates a certain area of the brain, the more easily accessible and effective that area can function as seen in the studies done on Tibetan monks (Rubik 2011). In Dr. Rubik’s study he found gamma waves to have a higher hertz rhythm and for those waves to last for longer periods of time before, during and after meditation compared to controls (Rubik, 2011). It is these firing of gamma waves and activity in the synapse that contribute to the thickening of white and gray matter in the brain. The areas of the brain that are effected help increase cognitive functioning, help regulate emotion, help execute control and attention, and help improve self-perception (Kang et al., 2013).  One area of the brain that is improved by meditation helps improve emotional regulation “through the coordination of behavioral and autonomic responses, which is critical for social adaptation” (Kang et al.,2013).  So not only does meditation improve a person’s subjective well-being, but it is also helps a person establish socially desirable traits fortifying healthier social bonds. We have found from other research studies that extraversion and a supportive social network is fundamental in happiness.

After analyzing research articles related to my topic I discovered information that further solidifies my theory that meditation can significantly increase subjective well-being and possibly replace SSRI treatment. I found a study done with prenatal and post-natal breast-feeding mothers that implemented meditation as a form of intervention from psychological distress.  Most physicians will prescribe SSRIs because it is the anti-depressant medication with the least known side effects and is safe to take while breast-feeding, so therefore it is the most commonly prescribed medication for post-partum depression. I was excited to see the findings in Dr. Walsh’s research study where he points out the side effects of SSRIs such as apathy and cognitive blunting (Walsh, Victor, & Bitner, 2006). This study describes the effects of SSRIs as “loss of motivation, increased passivity and feelings of lethargy and flatness” (Walsh, Victor, & Bitner, 2006).  I thought to myself, “So I am not crazy for having felt that way on Zolof!” Research does support my personal experience with the drug and my negative thoughts on its distribution to post-partum patients. When a mother is struggling to find motivation to get out of bed or to show interest in their newborn child, why would a physician prescribe something that would further blunt their ability to function? I understand that it is the drug of choice because it has little other known side effects especially harmful ones that could be passed on through breast milk but that area of concerned is yet to be further research as well.  If these are the “subtle” side effects of SSRIs then it is clear that an alternative solution is imperative, which is why I chose to delve into the idea of meditation and as far as I am concerned seems to be the best solution to the epidemic of depression.

Research supports the theory that meditation improves cognitive function, emotional well-being, social interaction, brain function, brain structure, and health by reducing blood pressure. These are all significant enough reasons to promote the usage of meditation as both a therapeutic and daily routine. Further research should be done on elderly patients since brain matter does tend to decrease with age and should be done so in a longitudinal study to view the effects of meditation done consistently over time.

Literature Review

Kang, D., Hang, J., Jung, W., Kim, S., Jung, Y., Choi, C., Lee, U., An, S., Jang, J., & Kwon, J. (2013). The effect of meditation on brain structure: cortical thickness mapping and diffusion tensor imaging. Oxford University Press, 8, 27-33. doi: 10.1093/scan/nss056

The purpose of this study was to examine and compare brain structural differences among long-term meditators and controls. What makes this study different from others is that is looks at long-term meditators and also takes into consideration the duration of meditation and how these variables effect the gray and white matter of the brain. The article also explains to the reader the functions of the different areas of the brain and how structural changes effect cognition and behavior. The article briefly mentions disorders such as schizophrenia and depression and how structural changes could help reduce symptoms for these disorders. Having more control of cognitive and emotional responses can increase a person’s subjective well-being.

Murakami, H., Nakao, T., Matsunaga, M., Kasuya, Y., Shinoda, J., Yamada, J., & Ohira, H. (2012). The Structure of Mindful Brain. PLoS ONE 7(9): e46377. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0046377

This research article gives a thorough definition of mindfulness and states that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy proved to be effective after a one year follow up in reducing recurrences of major depression compared to other treatments. The results found that mindfulness also increased gray matter within the amygdala which is novel from other research. This new finding suggest that mindfulness can reduce blood pressure and help control emotional responses. Health and psychosomatic issues are important variables in a person’s subjective well-being therefore suggesting that meditation can significantly improve these areas.

Perez, J., Viguer, P., & Rodrigo, M. (2013). Effects of a mindfulness-based intervention on psychological distress, well-being, and maternal self-efficacy in breast-feeding mothers: results of a pilot study. Womens Mental Health, 16, 227-236. doi: 10.1007/s00737-013-0337-z.

This study is near and dear to my heart as I am a breast-feeding mother who suffered from post-partum depression and I would have benefited significantly from mindfulness-based intervention such as the one used in this study. Mothers were taught how to meditate and did so during guided practices and on their own at home. Meditating participants saw a reduction in anxiety, stress and increase in midnfulness that also benefited their children and spouses. The results of this study could help reduce the frequency of primary care physicians prescribing anti-depressants for post-partum depression and can help increase the subjective well-being of mothers which will benefit their whole family.

Rubik, B. (2011). Neurofeedback-enhanced gamma brainwaves from the prefrontal cortical region of meditators and non-meditators and associated subjective experiences. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 17(2), 109-155. doi: 10.1089/acm.2009.0191

Dr. Rubik finds that meditators are able to produce a 40-Hz rhythm in the frontal lobe of the brain which is associated with conscious aspects of mental functioning, will power, focus of attention and the experience of oneness. He references studies done on Tibetan Buddhist and their ability to produce more gamma band waves before, during and after meditation compared to controls. The fluency and ability to produce higher and more frequent gamma waves as a result of meditation can help a person reach a state of mindfulness and flow more easily than mediation-naïve controls.

Smith, W., Compton, W., & West, W. (1995). Meditation as an adjunct to a happiness enhancement program. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 51(2), 269-273.

In this study one group of participants were taught a concentrative form of meditation along with the Personal Happiness Enhancement Program (PHEP) and were compared to a group that was only taught PHEP, along with comparison to the control group. The participants that had the combined benefit of meditation and PHEP improved significantly on all measures. This study did discover that participants only benefited if they meditated three or more times per week. One participant did discover that his increased awareness actually lowered his subjective well-being which has been duplicated in other research studies as well. This decrease in happiness has been contributed to psychological stress due to increasing awareness of internal states. This result is not very common, but is sometimes a reaction of some subjects.

Walsh, R., Victor, B., & Bitner, R. (2006). Emotional effects of sertraline: Novel findings revealed by meditation. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 76(1), 134-137.

This study answered many lingering questions I have had on the effects of sertraline and help reinforce my decision to wing myself off of the highly prescribed anti-depressant. Here we examine a case study of a 51 year old male trained in medicine, psychiatry, and neuroscience who has practiced meditation for over 20 years. During a meditation retreat it was revealed to him that his low dosage of sertraline reduced his ability to reach desired emotional states normally experienced during brahma vihara meditations. We have seen in other research studies the important benefits of meditation on happiness and to not be able to reach the desired results due to inhibition from medication is imperative to the treatment of depression.

Written by Stephanie Gonzalez. Not to be copied or duplicated without permission.

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