In the last installment of my current “new sleep studies” blog series, I want to go back a few months to have a look at a subject on a topic near and dear to my heart: meditation and sleep. Though practitioners know from experience that meditation (and yoga) can help them sleep better, the way it works isn’t exactly clear to medical science. This study makes a step in the right direction.
Meditation and Emotion
Last November, according to Science Daily, a research team published findings that meditation training could actually improve emotional regulation, even when practitioners weren’t meditating. The neuroscience researchers used brain imaging techniques before and after two distinct types of meditation training to study the brain’s emotional response to images. After the training, responses in the amygdala, a region of the brain that controls emotional reactions, were measurably reduced.
Furthermore, subjects who specialized in mindfulness meditation saw one set of shifts in brain response – and subjects who learned compassion meditation saw a different set of changes. Both were related to the amygdala, but the responses varied based on the kind of training the test subjects received.
Those who studied mindfulness training saw decreased response in the amygdala across the board, no matter what images they viewed. Those who studied compassion meditation, a type of meditation that focuses on generating “loving-kindness,” saw the same decrease in amygdala response when looking at positive or neutral images – but had an increased response when viewing negative images. This is not unexpected, given that generating compassion is closely linked to understanding and empathizing with suffering.
At the same time, subjects who undertook compassion meditation training reported decreased depression scores after the training was complete – so an increase in empathy didn’t mean an increase in the suffering a subject experienced. Rather, “having more compassion towards others may also be beneficial for oneself.”
Meditation and Sleep
If meditation can mitigate a person’s emotional control, it can help sleep. People who are more balanced and less anxious will spend fewer nights staring at the ceiling, worrying.
In a blog post I wrote last May, I explored meditation and sleep – and the lack of scientific research linking the two. Therapists and doctors both advocate meditation and relaxation techniques for helping troubled patients fall asleep, but rigorous scientific studies are lacking. This study is a step in the right direction. If emotion impacts sleep and meditation impacts emotion, we’re on the right track to understanding why and how meditation works.