Quirks & Quarks

Can short bursts of meditation change your brain?

Bob McDonald heads to the lab to have his brain waves measured. Dr. Olav Krigolson explains Bob's brain activity before and after meditation.

Dr. Olav Krigolson is a neuroscientist at the University of Victoria. He measured Bob's brain waves and spoke to him before and after a series of 10 minute meditations. 

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Bob McDonald: What are you going to be looking for in my brain?

Dr. Olav Krigolson:  So we're going to do two things. Bob, what we're going to do first is record your brain activity when you when you're at rest and while you're meditating.

And interspersed with that, we're going to have you play a game and we're going to be really interested in your brain response to two things that happened in that game.

BM:  Well how much information can you get about what's going on in my brain just from looking at brain waves?

OK:  You can get a quite a bit actually. If you look at the continuous brainwaves you can pull that apart and get information about how relaxed you are, whether you're paying attention, and general cognitive function.

BM:  What are some of the telltale signs you might be able to pick up from a person's brain while they're meditating?

OK:  Well there's been a large body of work done. There was an explosion in the '90s led by Richard Davidson and the body of work shows different activations at different frequencies, so the neurons in the brain fire at different frequencies, and those frequencies and where they're firing have different implications.

So the first thing that was found was what we call alpha activity, which is oscillations between eight and about 15 Hertz and that's been tied to relaxation. So you should get more alpha activity during meditation because you're a bit more relaxed. At least that's the sum of a large body of work.

BM:  What effect does meditation have on a person's cognitive abilities?

OK:  Well, in the literature there's definitely some hint that cognitive abilities are enhanced. Now there's not as many studies that do this...The general hint seems to be that cognitive function is enhanced following meditation.

BM:  OK best guess here, Dr. Krigolson. What effect do you think you'll see in my brain?

OK:  Well hopefully we'll see a change in that alpha activity. That'd be really cool to see. I'm not sure if ten sessions will be enough. In terms of a game and the game response assuming that everything is in line with what's been done before we should actually see some enhanced brain function in you Bob.

                                                              10 days later

BM: I am a little skeptical about whether or not the meditation sessions made any difference. But what kind of effect if any did you find in my brain?

OK: Well somewhat surprisingly, we did see some cool changes in your in your brain wave activity.

BM: Really?

OK: Yeah. When we looked at the what was going on during your first Headspace meditation and we compared that relative to the last Headspace meditation, there appeared to be more alpha activity during your initial meditation, which is in line with a lot of consistent previous studies.

And we also saw a decrease in alpha. So I'm not saying you're a meditation expert but the trend was in the right direction.

BM: Really? Well you know what I have to fess up here. I didn't do all 10. I only did six out of 10.

OK: Well one of the joys of science is pulling these things apart. We're probably a long way away from a full research study with this -- a sample of one -- and we probably could have had a bit more rigour to the design, but we also saw some other cool things.

We saw that there was an increase in beta activity in your last meditation, which has been shown to be related to a more focused mental activity. Beta is really not that well known it's an oscillation between 15 and about 30 Hertz. But that was kind of an interesting change to what.

BM: What does that mean, beta waves? What was my brain doing?

OK: Well beta is an interesting rhythm that you see. It's been tied to logic or critical reasoning. Possibly the thing that's most relevant to our little study here was the idea of focused mental acuity. So it might make sense that because you've done the Headspace app a few times, you've learned a little bit and you're a bit more focused while you're trying to meditation, which is reflected in the beta activity.

BM: So how strong was the actual effect that you saw?

OK:I mean that's really hard to say, Bob. Scientists like to hide behind large numbers of participants for this very reason. So I'd say there was a trend there, but I need to test you a lot more times and a lot of other people too, to put my foot down firmly.

BM: We hear a lot about how so many behaviours or circumstances can actually change our brains. But does that change actually amount to anything. Or do you think we overvalue changes in the brain.

OK: That's a really good question. I think we probably don't value them enough.

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