For two decades Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has documented how meditation can alter your brain. He has studied the brains of Buddhist monks who, for instance, have a much stronger “gamma” wave that is associated with consciousness and forming connections, and enjoy greater activity in the left prefrontal cortex, responsible for feelings of well-being and happiness.
Now a new study by Davidson and other researchers reports the first evidence of specific molecular changes in the body following a period of mindfulness meditation.
The study investigated the effects of a day of intensive mindfulness practice in a group of experienced meditators, compared to a group of untrained control subjects who engaged in quiet non-meditative activities. After eight hours of mindfulness practice, the meditators showed a range of genetic and molecular differences, including altered levels of gene-regulating machinery and reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes, which in turn correlated with faster physical recovery from a stressful situation.
“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first paper that shows rapid alterations in gene expression within subjects associated with mindfulness meditation practice,” says Davidson.
“Most interestingly, the changes were observed in genes that are the current targets of anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs,” says Perla Kaliman, first author of the article and a researcher at the Institute of Biomedical Research of Barcelona, Spain (IIBB-CSIC-IDIBAPS), where the molecular analyses were conducted.
The study was published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
Unlike Davidson’s prior studies with the Buddhist monks, the recent study was not designed to distinguish any effects of long-term meditation training from those of a single day or week. What is significant is that meditators experienced genetic changes following mindfulness meditation that were not seen in the non-meditating group. The result is proof that mindfulness practice can lead to an alteration of the genome.
“Our genes are quite dynamic in their expression and these results suggest that the calmness of our mind can actually have a potential influence on their expression,” Davidson says.