After half a century of scientific meditation studies, we finally seem to have a solid breakthrough: A small cluster of careful studies showing epigenetic anti-stress proteins being expressed as a result of a variety of meditation methods. The latest studies were conducted by Herbert Benson and colleagues at Harvard Medical School. While the Benson approach to the Relaxation Response was derived from the Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique of silent mantra meditation, this study included a variety of other methods, with these common features:
“Mind-body approaches that elicit the Relaxation Response include: various forms of meditation, repetitive prayer, yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, biofeedback, guided imagery and Qi Gong …. One way that the Relaxation Response can be elicited is when individuals repeat a word, sound, phrase, prayer or focus on their breathing with a disregard of intrusive everyday thoughts …”
A simple version of the Benson technique can be found online.
Since the days when the Beatles and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi made mantra meditation world famous, scientists have been interested in it — but not convinced of the traditional claims made by the great contemplative traditions. Over many years interesting evidence has been found, but changes in EEG, for example, are hard to interpret.
The reason for skepticism is simple: Just asking practitioners whether they feel better after their favorite practice can always be explained as a placebo effect. People say they feel better if they are given a “miracle” sugar pill. Nearly anything can work as a placebo. A hypnotist can point a magic wand, people can drink from a mystical well, or they may say prayers. Placebo effects do work — but they rarely result in permanent cures. Scientific studies always control for placebo effects.
Which is why skeptics generally do not believe self-reports about contemplative practices. Last year, when the Dalai Lama visited the Society for Neuroscience meeting, many scientists protested against this “unscientific” event. But the fact is that we simply don’t know whether the Dalai Lama’s contemplative practices work or not. We might be too skeptical, or we might be too gullible.
Now there is some solid progress to report. Three studies from Harvard Medical School show positive stress-related gene expression after meditation. This evidence is hard to dismiss. The human genome controls our bodies by way of specific proteins expressed by a host of body cells; since protein production is controlled by DNA, this is called “gene expression.” Going to sleep alters about 300 gene expressions, producing new proteins for specific body functions. Waking up, running, being scared, thinking hard, feeling stressed and resting, all show distinct patterns of gene expression. Gene expression also changes with the time of day and with the body clock. Gene expression is the working code that runs our bodies.
The finding that mantra meditation improves gene expression for energy production, insulin and inflammation, is therefore very significant. These factors are directly related to stress and health.
Humans respond to stress by activating the HPA axis (secreting hormones from hypothalamus (H), pituitary gland (P) and adrenal cortex (A) ). Those hormones rev up our bodies to fight, to have sex or to run away.
Benson and colleagues have proposed for four decades that the HPA stress response is balanced by a Relaxation Response, to rebuild our physiological reserves. For example, inflammation is a key to stress response and healing. Inflammation promotes healing at moderate levels and leads to exhaustion and damage at chronic levels. Likewise, energy metabolism is the production, regulation and storage of our bodily fuel (ultimately ATP). Insulin metabolism pumps sugar into our muscles. A mix of these three gene expressions — inflammation, energy, and insulin — could promote health and recharge our energies.
The Harvard studies may therefore show some of the most important meditation findings in the last half century of research. They seem to rule out placebo effects, and they reveal gene expressions that are directly related to health at the deepest physiological levels.
The Harvard group takes the controversial view that many different contemplative techniques may be fundamentally similar at the physiological level. This is an ongoing question, and we do not yet know the answer.
By spreading a very wide net over the great range of meditative and prayer traditions, scientists can focus on common factors and common effects. If the recent research reports are right, these common factors may indeed be effective in their own right.
Obviously it’s always possible that scientists who take this approach will miss some distinctive features of specific contemplative techniques. However, it gives us a start in addressing the great range of traditional practices.
A personal note: I’ve practiced the TM technique, on and off, for many years. As a born skeptic, I’m always looking for reliable evidence for its effects. Practitioners of these methods commonly report intense distressing emotions (“unstressing”) as well as positive experiences. There seems to be no scientific literature yet on these “unstressing” events, and like any other healing technique, the safety profile of meditation techniques must be understood as well. As a result, it is best to do meditation techniques under the guidance of experienced teachers.
Genomic Counter-Stress Changes Induced by the Relaxation Response
Jeffery A. Dusek1,2,3,6., Hasan H. Otu3,4., Ann L. Wohlhueter1, Manoj Bhasin3,4, Luiz F. Zerbini3,4, Marie G.
Joseph4, Herbert Benson1,3,5*, Towia A. Libermann3,4*
This work by Bernard J Baars and the Society for Mind Brain Sciences is licensed under