When Science Meets Meditation

For thousands of years, people have practiced meditation for spiritual, emotional, and physical well being. But from a scientific perspective, how exactly does meditating affect your body? Does it really do anything? It all starts in the brain!

During meditation, brain-scans see increased activity in regions directly correlated with decreased anxiety and depression, along with increased pain tolerance. The Default Mode Network, in particular, is activated when one’s mind is at rest and not focusing on the outside world and has been found to improve memory, self-awareness and goal setting.

Want to be more caring to your friend? When scientists compared the brains of Buddhist monks to new meditators, they found the region of the brain associated with empathy to be much more pronounced in the monks. It also literally changes your brain waves — and we can measure these frequencies. Meditators have higher levels of Alpha waves, which have been shown to reduce feelings of negative mood, tension, sadness and anger. And if that wasn’t enough, it also physically changes our brain shape and size.

Studies found that after 8 weeks of a meditation program, the gray matter was denser in areas associated with learning, memory processing, and emotion regulation. And yet the amygdala, which deals with stress, blood pressure and fear, had decreased gray matter! When we look at the entire body, not only do we see decreased blood pressure, but it can also increase the variability of your heart rate. It actually plays a critical role in properly transporting Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide throughout your body.

Think you’re getting sick? In a study where both meditators and non-mediators were given the flu virus, meditators were able to produce a greater number of antibodies and had increased immune function. If we go a little deeper, we can even see changes on a cellular level. Your chromosomes have protective protein complexes called telomeres, which help reduce damage to your DNA and lower cell death. And a shortened telomere length has been linked to several diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer. Amazingly, when cancer survivors completed a meditation program, their bodies showed significant increases in telomere length.

It’s believed that psychological intervention, particularly decreasing stress, has a direct effect on the enzyme telomerase, which has been shown to counteract shortening by adding DNA to the shrinking telomeres. But much like hitting the gym can grow your muscles and increase your overall health, it seems that meditation may be a way of ‘working out’ your brain with extra health benefits. And since your brain controls, well, all of you, why not relax and say ‘om’ every once in a while. Harvard scientists have come up with evidence that the mere act of clearing your mind for 15 minutes each day actually alters how your genes operate. A new study indicates that people who meditated over an eight-week period had a striking change in the expression of 172 genes that regulate inflammation, circadian rhythms and glucose metabolism. And that, in turn, was linked to a meaningful decrease in their blood pressure. The results from the studies carried out at Harvard also claim that mindfulness may change the brain in depressed patients.

Since the late 1960s, around the time that Dr. Herbert Benson published his landmark book, The Relaxation Response, researchers have been investigating the relationship between meditation and stress. They discovered that meditation triggers something called the relaxation response. What is that? To quote Dr. Benson, “The relaxation response is a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress… and [it’s] the opposite of the fight or flight response.” And what’s one of the best ways to elicit the relaxation response? You guessed it, meditation. Since 1971, there have been numerous studies on the relaxation response which have highlighted the following short-term benefits:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improved blood circulation
  • Lower heart rate
  • Less perspiration
  • Slower respiratory rate
  • Less anxiety
  • Lower blood cortisol levels
  • More feelings of well-being
  • Less stress
  • Deeper relaxation

Indeed, because meditation stimulates our relaxation response, it is also one of the most effective ways to combat stress. That has given rise to an explosion of interest in mindfulness-based practices like Jon Kabat-Zinn’sMindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Dr. Richard Miller’s iRest.

Recently, with the advancement of neuroscience and advanced imaging technologies, we have started to see the profound influence of meditation on the brain. An article from Forbes details the following ways that meditation actually changes the brain.

  • Meditation helps preserve the aging brain
  • Meditation reduces activity in the brain’s “Me Center”
  • Its effects rival antidepressants for depression and anxiety
  • Meditation may lead to volume changes in key areas of the brain
  • Just a few days of training improves concentration and attention
  • Meditation reduces anxiety — and social anxiety
  • Meditation can help with addiction
  • Short meditation breaks can help kids in school

When we consistently meditate for two months or more, a noticeable restructuring occurs within the brain. Researchers from Harvard University carried out an intensive study to figure out exactly what happens to our brains when we meditate regularly over time. 16 participants were put through a guided meditation program that lasted for 27 minutes each day for 8 weeks in total. When the two months were up, the researchers observed that the regions of the brain associated with memory, learning, emotion control, self-awareness and perspective increased in volume.

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