Remember your last vacation? Maybe you burned out trying to see every attraction in the guidebook or you landed in a noisy hotel room by the elevators. Next time, a meditative spiritual retreat could be a soothing alternative that goes beyond merely taking time to chill. A new study shows that a weeklong spiritual retreat can reroute brain chemicals to bolster feelings of calm and well-being that can be lost in the everyday hustle and bustle.
Background: Yoga and spiritual retreats have become popular escapes from work and life’s day-to-day routine. People who’ve attended extended retreats often come back feeling relaxed and content—and some say that they’ve been through a life-altering experience. But is that just talk from proponents of these retreats, or is there a biological reason for feeling better?
Study: In 14 men and women ranging in age from 24 to 76, researchers compared brain scan results before and after they attended the same seven-day spiritual retreat. The retreat took place on the serene grounds of a Pennsylvania Jesuit center. After attending morning mass, the participants spent the rest of the day in prayer and reflective silence. They ate meals in a common dining area. Before the scans, participants were injected with a specific tracer that follows the movements in the brain of two neurotransmitters (chemical messengers)—dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine is involved in reward pathways by inducing positive, feel-good emotions. Serotonin affects how we regulate emotions and mood.
Results: After the retreat, the scans revealed significant decreases in a process that essentially absorbs dopamine and serotonin in certain regions of the brain. With less of that absorption, greater levels of dopamine and serotonin should be available to circulate throughout the brain. Higher levels of the circulating neurotransmitters are associated with positive emotions, such as those reported by the people who attended the retreat.
Bottom line: Those feel-good responses to extended meditative practice are rooted in biological changes in your brain. How long will they last? This study didn’t follow the retreat participants over the next few weeks or months, so it can’t answer that question. Because there was no comparison group, it also can’t tell us whether similar changes might occur after, say, a seven-day African safari—or a beach vacation. But it does reinforce the benefits of a sustained “digital detox” and the brain-changing benefits of meditation. Intrigued? Find out how to plan your own spiritual retreat. Pressed for time? Check out this 12-minute meditation.