Expectation, belief, and spiritual practice like prayer and meditation can affect neurotransmitter activity.
Studies prove, for example, that psychotherapy can result in the same changes in neurotransmitter activity as seen in patients who take anti-depressants.1 And just as drug-taking cues can cause dopamine to spike, sugar-pill placebos have increased dopamine in Parkinson’s patients who were told they were getting medicine when they actually weren’t.2 Placebos can also stimulate the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers.3 In other words, expectation can affect how the brain works at a fundamental level.4
Meditation also has dramatic effects on the brain. One study of Buddhist monks while they meditated revealed that their brains generated higher levels of gamma waves than were typical, a sign of integrating widespread neural circuits. The more hours of meditation practice they had, the more their gamma waves were boosted both during meditation and between sessions. The monks also showed higher activity in brain structures associated with love and empathy. Researcher Richard Davidson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison says, “This positive state is a skill that can be trained. Our findings clearly indicate that meditation can change the function of the brain in an enduring way.”5
Another study reported that after three months of meditation training, test subjects had a profound difference in perception. This experiment explored “attentional blink.” Shown pictures of two letters embedded among pictures of 20 numbers flashed a half-second apart, non-meditators’ attention stayed with the first number and they missed the second; their attention “blinked.” Experienced meditators, by contrast, were able to focus, then “let go” of attention on the first number and perceive the second. Thus, meditation can affect attention itself.6
A brain-imaging study at Yale showed that regular meditators can switch off areas of the brain linked to anxiety and other psychiatric disorders. Their brains had decreased activity in an area known as the “default mode network”, which is linked to self-centered thinking. The researchers suggest that, through monitoring and suppressing self-centered thoughts, meditators develop a new “default mode,” which is more present-centered and less anxious. The study also showed that experienced meditators’ brain activity was the same during meditation and afterward while resting but not meditating. Researchers concluded that experienced meditators may have developed a new “default mode,” which is centered more on present circumstances than on the self.7
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is a combination of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Buddhist meditation techniques. It teaches “critical awareness” to help people make better decisions and has been effective with some alcoholics in dealing with cravings. Counter intuitively, MBCT trains subjects not to do what most try — avoid negative feelings. Rather, one has to pay attention to adverse emotions in order to discard them. Dr. Paramabandhu Groves, one of the instructors, says MBCT, “gives you the ability to stay with negative thoughts. Once you stay with these negative thoughts, you can diffuse them and take the power out of them.”8
“Mindfulness” focuses on how to pay attention and what to pay attention to. Stanford psychologist Philippe R. Goldin, puts it this way, “Parents and teachers tell kids 100 times a day to pay attention, but we never teach them how.” In teaching them how, subjects are primed to recognize degrading thoughts and emotions by observing themselves in a non-judgmental way and to focus on compassion rather than their negative voices. A Kaiser study of teenagers showed promise for this technique in treating mood disorders, depression, anorexia, and bulimia.9
Similarly, scientists say one of the best techniques to counter dread — the fear of painful future events — is distraction. Compared to “mild dreaders,” “extreme dreaders” had higher activity in the brain’s pain apparatus; “extreme dreaders” focus more on the impending pain. They are a great deal more likely to accept more pain faster to get it over with than less pain with a longer wait. Distracting the mind from impending distress by concentrating on other things can help relive that anticipation of pain.10
What the science shows is that the brain is trainable to alter neurotransmitter function at the cellular level. You can affect what you pay attention to. For addicts in recovery, this lends credence to what one learns in rehab and AA: in sobriety you can learn to recognize your addict thinking when it occurs and change it from a relief-in-a-bottle mind-set to one able to identify self-destructive urges and discard them. But it takes training, practice and time to retrain your mind.
1. Like Drugs, Talk Therapy Can Change Brain Circuitry; New York Times, Aug. 27, 2006; How Thinking Can Change the Brain; Wall Street Journal, Jan. 19, 2007.
2. Brain Changes Occur Even With Placebos; San Francisco Chronicle, Aug. 13, 2001.
3. Placebo Power: Research Links Effect to How Brain Views Pills; Wall Street Journal, Nov. 29, 2005.
4. Parkinson’s Study Shows Effects of Placebo Can Be Quite Real; Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2004.
5. How Thinking Can Change the Brain; Wall Street Journal, Jan. 19, 2007.
6. Study Suggests Meditation Can Help Train Attention, New York Times, May 8, 2007.
7. How Meditation Benefits the Brain, medicalnewstoday.com, Nov. 23, 2011.
8. Buddhist Meditation Helps People Stop Drinking; MNT.com, Jun. 22, 2007.
9. In the Classroom, A New Focus On Quieting the Mind; New York Times, Jun. 16, 2007.
10. Study Points to a Solution for Dread: Distraction; New York Times, May 5, 2006.