You should meditate, and you’ve probably heard this before. Odds are, though, that you probably don’t know too much about meditation. I asked my roommate, Ben, what he thought about it. His response:
“I don’t know, it’s sitting, collecting your thoughts, and it’s just good for destressing, I guess.”
Science tells us more. In fact, the scientific study of the biological, psychological, and social benefits of meditation has exploded. A quick search on Google Scholar for “meditation” in the year 2015 yields 16,200 peer-reviewed journal articles. So why does it pay to meditate? Let’s begin.
A Working Definition
In general, meditation refers to a broad range of practices that involve self-regulation of the mind or induce different modes of consciousness. Here, I will mainly refer to mindfulness meditation, which tends to encourage “moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.” People practice mindfulness meditation in a variety of ways, one of the most common being to simply sit and be aware of one’s thoughts.
General Changes in Neural Activity
Functional MRI scans indicate that meditation produces “convergent changes in the topological and spatial properties of brain functional networks.” Translation: meditation creates real, observable changes in the brain — it’s not just spiritual mumbo-jumbo. Rebecca Gladding, M.D., describes these macro-level changes in the brain as those that transform a brain that’s “Stuck on Me” to one that “Can See Clearly Now.” The problem, Gladding notes, is that the typical person’s brain has particularly active neural connections within the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), which helps us process information relevant to ourselves, and from the mPFC to fear and sensation-regulating mechanisms. Simultaneously, people tend to not have enough activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex, or what Gladding calls the “Assessment Center,” which helps us view things calmly and rationally. Meditation combats both of these problems, decreasing neural activity between the brain’s anxiety centers and the mPFC while increasing connections between the “Assessment Center” and bodily sensation/fear centers. The result: clearer, calmer, and more controlled reactions to all of life’s stressful and anxiety-inducing events.
That’s not all. Here are some more of the positive benefits of meditation that have been backed by peer-reviewed studies:
Increased immune function. Antibody concentrations in response to the influenza vaccine were higher in meditators than non-meditators. A few weeks ago, Gerbarg and others found that a combination of “breathing, movement and meditation” had positive effects on Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome.
Increased social connection and emotional intelligence. “Even just a few minutes of loving-kindness meditation” increased social connectedness when participants met new individuals.
Improved memory. Even “brief mindfulness training” improved working memory. A study published just two months ago revealed that “KK [a type of meditation]... reduces multiple risk factors for AD [Alzheimer’s disease].”
Are you now at least a little convinced to meditate? I hope the answer is yes. Your brain has remarkable plasticity, especially in regards to meditation. So take a few minutes a day to sit and meditate, and your brain will thank you for it.
Alex Hwang is a freshman from Jones College at Rice University.
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Gerbarg, P. L., Jacob, V. E., Stevens, L., Bosworth, B. P., Chabouni, F., DeFilippis, E. M., ... & Scherl, E. J. The Effect of Breathing, Movement, and Meditation on Psychological and Physical Symptoms and Inflammatory Biomarkers in Inflammatory Bowel Disease: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Inflamm Bowel Dis 2015, epub.
Hutcherson, C.A.; Seppala, E. M.; Gross, J. J. Loving-kindness meditation increases social connectedness. Emotion 2008, 8, 720-724.
Zeidan, F.; Johnson, S.K.; Diamond, B.J.; David, Z.; Goolkasian, P. Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and Cognition 2010, 19, 590-605.
Khalsa, D.S. Stress, Meditation, and Alzheimer’s Disease Prevention: Where The Evidence Stands. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 2015, 48, 1-12.
Conklin, Q., King, B., Zanesco, A., Pokorny, J., Hamidi, A., Lin, J., ... & Saron, C. Telomere lengthening after three weeks of an intensive insight meditation retreat. Psychoneuroendocrinology 2015, 61, 26-27.
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