Meditation holds the potential to help treat children suffering from traumas, difficult diagnoses or other stressors – a behavioral neuroscientist explains

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The big idea

Children actively meditating experience lower activity in parts of the brain involved in rumination, mind-wandering and depression, our team found in the first brain-imaging study of young people under 18 years old. Over-activity in this collection of brain regions, known as the default mode network, is thought to be involved in the generation of negative self-directed thoughts – such as “I am such a failure” – that are prominent in mental disorders like depression.

In our study, we compared a simple form of distraction – counting backward from 10 – with two relatively simple forms of meditation: focused attention to the breath and mindful acceptance. Children in an MRI scanner had to use these techniques while watching distress-inducing video clips, such as a child receiving an injection.

We found that meditation techniques were more effective than distraction at quelling activity in that brain network. This reinforces research from our lab and others showing that meditation techniques and martial arts-based meditation programs are effective for reducing pain and stress in children with cancer or other chronic illnesses – and in their siblings – as well as in schoolchildren during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This study, led by medical student Aneesh Hehr, is important because meditation techniques such as focused attention on the breath or mindful acceptance are popular in school settings and are increasingly used to help children cope with stressful experiences. These might include exposures to trauma, medical treatments or even COVID-19-related stress.