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Worried Sick

 
Science Hotline
Photo of Lazar Sara Lazar
Please e-mail your questions before April 15, 2003Read the Answers
 

Sara W. Lazar is an instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, as well as a scientist at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center's Mind/Body Medical Institute and an Assistant in Psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Lazar originally sought a PhD in molecular biology, planning on a career studying cellular function. Today, she works to understand how meditation affects the brain, both in healthy subjects and in people with chronic illnesses.

At first skeptical about the cognitive/emotional and deeper health benefits of yoga, Lazar started taking yoga to stay in shape while recovering from a sports injury. She soon realized that there was more to yoga than stretching. She started taking yoga workshops to learn more about what the yogis knew about its effects. Lazar also began to practice meditation.

Upon finishing her PhD in 1996, Lazar did a molecular bio post-doctoral fellowship at New England Medical Center while she figured out how to best study meditation scientifically and find a place to do the work. She currently has two grants, one for looking at subjects who have just 8 weeks of practice, and one for looking at subjects with extensive meditation experience.

     

For links to Sara Lazar's home page and other related infomation please see our resources page.

Lazar Responds:

Tina asks:
Hi Sara.

I caught the tail end of your segment on PBS last night. I have been a student and practitioner of meditation for 11 years (I'm 33). I meditate at least an hour every day. I have not had a cold or flu or any immune related illness in that time. I am curious whether you would be able to determine whether increased immunity was caused by an actual increase in the responsiveness of the immune system, caused by meditation, or whether the reduction of stress itself is solely responsible.

I am quite convinced of the physiological as well as "other" effects of meditation, as well as exercise.

I was wondering, if you had investigated whether similar effects would happen in the brain following intense exercise like running or swimming as they do in meditation, as I have a similar feeling with both.

The other thing I wanted to ask you was whether you had also done any experiments outside the MRI (heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rates, brain waves, etc.) with a meditation subject. I ask this because in many schools, it is taught that the vertical alignment of the spine is crucial to the flow of Kundalini energy, and this could potentially be impacted by the horizontal placement of the body (requiring the subject to lie down) in the MRI.

Also, wondering if you had looked at how the environment of the MRI itself (the fear elicited by the claustrophobic and loud conditions), in addition, could impact the ability of the subject to enter into meditation as deeply as they might, say in a chair in a quiet room.

It seems also possible to me that the magnetic energy itself could affect the flow of the Kundalini energy in a way that may be different than in its absence.

It may be hard to find one, but there are some advanced practitioners of meditation who have been known to be able to stop their breath entirely for periods of time - ("samadhi" is known as the "breathless state") - now that would be difficult for the scientific community to deal with!

Just some thoughts. It must be very challenging to study this all scientifically without placing preconceived ideas upon it. Thanks, -Tina

Lazar's response:
Great questions! Although there are numerous studies demonstrating that meditation can decrease feelings of stress, I am unaware of any experiments that have tried to tease apart the specific health benefits of the method (meditation) from those of the psychological outcome (decreased stress). It is an important but difficult question to address. Both physical and psychological short-term effects occur during the actual practice of meditation. Undoubtedly these acute changes interact synergistically to promote better health, but the exact mechanism of how meditation works is still unknown. Another confound is that when people start a meditation practice, they often also make diet modifications or other life-style changes that might further contribute to the health benefits frequently reported by long-term meditators.

As for how the testing environment might be influencing our results, we can answer some but not all of those questions. We ask subjects to rate their meditation experiences and to fill out a questionnaire describing the feelings and sensations that they experienced while in the scanner. We specifically ask about claustrophobia, noise and the experimental equipment placed on their bodies, as well as more general questions regarding physical tightness, sleepiness, boredom, ability to stay focused, etc. A few subjects have told us that it was difficult to meditate, usually because of the noise. However, most reported that although it wasn't perfect, they were able to achieve a reasonably good meditative state for most of the scan time, and a few even said that they had no problem whatsoever entering a fairly deep meditative state. If a subject feels claustrophobic at any point, they can indicate they want to get out and we remove them from the scanner and end the session immediately. Usually if someone has a problem with the space, it is evident the moment they first begin the experiment.

I do not know of any way to measure a person's internal (Kundalini) energy, so I can't comment on how it might be affected by lying down or by being in the scanner. None of the subjects remarked on this, so I presume any effect was negligible. The study of well-defined neural functions such as vision has taken decades, and although scientists now have a good understanding of this system, there is still much that is unknown. The scientific study of meditation is just beginning, and will undoubtedly also take several decades to fully unfold as we develop new and better methods for investigating what is happening.

Taj Dhillon asks:
Dear Sara,
I very much enjoyed your contribution to the show "Worried Sick" on Scientific Frontiers. My husband has type-1 diabetes that he contracted a year ago and he has ulcerative colitis for the pass five years. He is only 40 years old and has always had excellent health, however he came from a high stress occupation. Any suggestions on whether I can get him into a study which would monitor his health while he began a meditation program or can you suggest any meditation/yoga centers which would be helpful to him. We are also interested in biofeedback - what are your thoughts on this area?

I appreciate that you are very busy, but I would be most grateful for your opinion.
Thankyou

Lazar's response:
There are a growing number of meditation-based stress reduction programs being started in hospitals and clinics all over the US. Some are targeted toward specific medical conditions while some are open to anyone who is under stress. There are also a growing number of studies looking into the efficacy of meditation-based interventions for a variety of illnesses. Although I do not know of any programs specific to colitis or any programs in Texas, I would recommend contacting your local medical institutions and inquiring about their "stress reduction", "staying healthy" or "general-wellness" programs. You can also often find yoga and meditation centers by looking in the yellow pages or on the web (performing a search for "stress reduction" or "mindfulness-based stress reduction" and your city name usually gives a good list of programs).

Some stress reduction programs are primarily focused on meditation and yoga while others incorporate biofeedback, music, guided imagery and other relaxation techniques. Although there is plenty of data that indicates that these methods are useful complementary medical techniques, there is not yet any data about whether one technique is better than another. My own sense is that any given technique will only be effective if you are comfortable with it and if you practice it regularly. There are numerous styles of yoga and meditation; I would recommend trying several to find one that best suits you.

 


 
 
 
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