Mind-Body Connection During Meditation Can Now be Tracked, Thanks to Science

A woman meditates at sunset on Venice Beach in Los Angeles, California. A team of researchers say they've figured out a way to scientifically track the mind-body connection. Lucy Nicholson/REUTERS

When touting the health benefits of meditation, experts and practitioners often speak about experiencing a mind-body connection. But up until recently, the concept that a person’s physical and mental functions become synchronized thanks to deep, controlled breathing and a lot of discipline has been difficult to prove.  Some people are perfectly fine accepting what spiritual gurus say about enlightenment, but it’s certainly not enough for scientists who tend to want well-designed studies that objectively demonstrate unconfirmed claims.

Thankfully, a group of researchers say they’ve developed a method for measuring the physiological phenomena associated with mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). Researchers from the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Buddhist Studies and their department of electrical and electronic engineering have come up with what they say is a consistent and accurate way to prove the real-time physiological effects of spiritual practice, namely how a person’s heart and brain activity synchronize.

“We talk about whether your body and mind are in harmony but there is no systematic way of measuring this,” says the Venerable Sik Hin Hung, director of the Centre for Buddhist studies and lead researcher on the paper. “We now can say with some kind of certainty that when you’re practicing MBSR your heart and your mind become more synchronized and that’s very good for you.”

The paper was published Wednesday in JoVE Video Journal, a one-of-its kind scientific journal focused on study methodology. Founded in 2006, the main purpose of this peer-reviewed journal  is to address the issue of reproducibility in biomedical science. Hung says the methodology developed and used by him and his team is complicated, which is why they published with JoVE , since the journal produces how-to videos for all of the studies. (In 2016, Hung and his team published another separate study in in Neuroscience Letters explaining the results of their research.)

“When you find out something you want to be acknowledged that you’re the first guy to able to find a way to do it,” he says. Hung says he hopes the paper will help guide other researchers to replicate the process in their own scientific investigations of mindfulness and various forms of meditation such as the physiological effects of mantra chanting, yoga, tai chi and prayer. The test could also be used to track a person’s progress when just starting a meditation practice.

For the study, Hung’s team recruited a group of 11 graduate students enrolled in an 8-week university-led MBSR course, which means they were meditation novices rather than masters. The researchers connected study participants to electroencephalogram (EEG) and electrocardiogram (ECG), and collected data while they were practicing MBSR as well as when they were breathing normally. EEG is used in clinical settings to evaluate patients with conditions such as epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s disease and sleep disorders. ECG (also known as EKG) measures the electric activity of the heart. Both of these tests evaluate wavelet entropy, which is essentially chaotic or erratic activity. After evaluating the activity of both brain and heart, the researchers converted, summarized and compared the data and then used a statistical method to analyze their findings.

“By measuring the things that are chaotic you more or less have a reflection of things that are in harmony,” he says. Hung’s assertion probably seems like a Zen-influenced commentary on, say, figuring out the meaning of life but it’s actually based in some reasonable scientific truth.

To be sure, there’s already a growing body of scientific research on mindfulness. But existing research namely looks at the long-term effects of MBSR on the brain.  Most of these studies rely on participant questionnaires that evaluate perceived changes in mood and stress level, as well as brain scans that seek to identify any physicial brain changes. What researchers have found is that a regular mindfulness practice causes structural changes to the brain. One study out of Harvard Medical School published in 2011, found a 2-month mindfulness program increased grey matter brain density. Grey matter is involved in sensory processing, as well as speech, executive function, self-control and emotions. But Hung's research is science's first effort to look at MBSR impact in realtime, he says.

Humans (and all mammals, for that matter) have two different nervous systems: The sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is in charge of your “fight and flight” instinct, while the parasympathetic governs breathing, feeding, digestion and sexual function. In a perfect world, these would operate at the same momentum. However, modern life taxes the mind and therefore also the body.

The sympathetic nervous system controls the release of the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline). The release of adrenaline into the bloodstream causes a number of physiological effects including a quickening of the heart. Other changes that occur, such as an increase in blood pressure. Chronic stress therefore impacts the parasympathetic nervous system by provoking physiological changes that cause the body to operate less efficiently.

“In our daily life when we become stressed the sympathetic nervous system kicks into action and suppresses the parasympathetic nervous,” says Hung. “Through this research we found out the practice of MBSR was able to synchronize these two systems, which is a good thing.”