The ancient practice of meditation is becoming more and more the subject of new scientific studies.
For decades, scientists and practitioners alike have been eager to discover and validate the effects of meditation beyond the beneficial effects of relaxation.
Until recently however, very little was known about the real range of physical and mental effects (which are measurable, as opposed to spiritual and emotional effects, which are generally not).
The results are in and the findings are conclusive.
There is now scientific proof of Meditation profoundly changing not only brain structure but the way that different regions of the brain communicate with each other.
This changes the way we process information, make decisions and behave, and the changes appear to be permanent.
In part, because the studies have received widespread publicity, meditation is becoming more and more widely used as a complementary therapy for conditions such as:
Anxiety, Depression and PTSD.
Scientific proof of meditation as a performance enhancer for athletes, performers and CEOs is also a welcome and natural self development tool.
It is in many cases a very successful form of pain management for patients suffering from mild to chronic conditions and is as an excellent way of de-stressing.
A 2011 Harvard-affiliated 8-week study conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital and led by Sara Lazar, used MRI imaging to document how and where meditation produces physical changes in the brain.
“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day.”
– says study senior author Sara Lazar of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program and a Harvard Medical School psychology instructor.
“This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing,” says Lazar.
This means that meditation is proving to have quite different effects on the brain than other forms of relaxation.
The brains of experienced meditators show structural differences from the brains of non-meditators, including thickening of the cerebral cortex.
The Harvard/MGH study participants were asked to perform mindfulness exercises for an average of 27 minutes per day.
Even this short period of time was enough to stimulate an increase in grey matter density in the hippocampus. This is the part of the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.
This truly is wonderful news and is the scientific proof of meditation doing more than we once thought possible. It confirms that you don’t have to spend hours and hours every day meditating. It means everyday people can enjoy the benefits of meditation and not just those living in monasteries with excess meditative time on their hands. It also means that one 20-40 minute Lifeflow track daily will do the trick!
The functional connectivity between various parts of the brain also changed. Researchers found a reduction in activity between the amygdala and the rest of the brain. There was an increase in activity between the areas associated with focused attention and concentration. Participants also reported reduced feelings of anxiety and stress.
These reports were supported by a measurable decrease in grey matter density in the amygdala (the brain’s stress center).
Meditation allows you to disconnect from the brain’s stress center.
This means you can allow yourself to FEEL fear, anger or other negative emotions but refrain from acting on them.
Having this sort of emotional self-regulation helps you make better decisions that are aligned with your goals and values, rather than being constantly reactive to life’s events.
There is also great news for chronic pain sufferers. Meditators are able to reduce their perception of pain significantly more than non-meditators, which makes the pain less “important” and therefore they are able to feel less pain.
Meditators are able to de-focus on the stimulus of pain, in other words they do not give in to the urge to think about the pain. This reduces the stress associated with pain, and when the individual focuses on something else, the pain can even disappear entirely. This isn’t just a “mind trick”! Meditation has also been shown to reduce inflammation, which is the leading cause of chronic pain.
These changes did not occur in the control group, proving that meditation does physically change the brain. And, it’s interesting to note that the scale of these changes are directly related to how many hours of meditation an individual has done. The longer an individual has been meditating, the more pronounced the effects.
In terms of overall well-being, we now know there is scientific proof of meditation causing a permanent change in perception or the way we see the world.
Studies done on long-term meditators (40,000 or more hours) show something remarkable.
It shows that their brain in its everyday resting state (not meditating), looks very similar (when scanned) to that of a beginning meditator’s brain when they are meditating.
The meditator’s brains have shifted to “default tranquility” rather than “default alarm.” The default alarm state is what we feel when we’re stressed.
When the new way of thinking becomes the default and doesn’t require concentration, that’s when you will fully experience the miracle of meditation!
Current studies are underway to see if and how mindfulness is different from other forms of stress relief, in order to track meditation-induced physical and functional changes in the brain over time.
“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.”
– says Britta Hölzel, research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany.
What other scientific proof of meditation do you need?