Article by Rebekka Walker
Meditation is quickly becoming one of the most popular complementary therapies for reducing stress, depression/anxiety, while increasing cognitive and social skills. The ancient practice of learning to sit with one’s self, whilst settling into the present moment, has long been known by yogis, martial artists and shamanic practitioners to deepen a sense of well being and wholeness; so it’s no surprise that western medicine is finally starting to catch up.
The effect of meditation on the brain is being studied at Harvard Medical School, Johns Hopkins and Yale; to name just a few; with new studies coming out just about every week to quantify some new benefit of the practice. Or, rather, to quantify and measure what any meditator already knows.
The practice is proving scientifically to have a variety of neurological benefits – from enhanced connectivity and function between brain regions, shifts in the volume of grey matter, to decreased activity in the egoic centers of the brain and increases in the capacity of the nervous system to combat stress.
Below are some of the most exciting studies to come out in the last few years, which demonstrate that a mediative practice really does have long lasting and profound effects on the mind and body.
Meditation helps to treat depression
Researcher Madhav Goyal completed a study last year at Johns Hopkins looking at the relationship between mindfulness meditation and its ability to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. They found that the effect of meditation was moderate, with a 30 percent reduction of symptoms. (If this doesn’t sound like much, keep in mind that the efficacy of antidepressants is also measured at a 30 percent reduction). Meditation is, after all, a potent form of brain training. “A lot of people have this idea that meditating means sitting down and doing nothing,” says Goyal. “But that’s not true. Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways.” Although meditating isn’t a perfect cure for depression, it is definitely proving immensely beneficial.
Improve attention and concentration
One of the key benefits of meditation is its power to improve concentration and attention. One recent study found that just a few weeks of meditation training helped focus and memory during the verbal reasoning section of The Graduate Record Examinations (a standardized test that is an admissions requirement for many graduate schools in the United States and Canada.) In fact, the study showed an increase in score that was equivalent to a 16 percent jump! Since developing a strong and steady stream of attention (on an idea object or activity) is one of the central themes of meditation, it’s not surprising that meditation can help to increase focus, cognitive ability and overall learning.
Meditation, Stress and Anxiety
Companies like Google, Hootsuite and Apple offer meditation break rooms for their employees to combat stress, and many millions of people have started meditating for its benefits in stress reduction because there is lots of good evidence to support this.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Mindfulness, aims to reduce practitioner’s stress level, physically and mentally. Studies have shown the benefits of MBSR in reducing anxiety, even three years after the initial 8-week course. Research has also shown that mindfulness meditation, in contrast to attending to the breath only, can reduce anxiety – and these changes seem to be mediated through the brain regions associated with self-centered (“egoic”) thoughts. Mindfulness meditation has also shown to help people with social anxiety: a Stanford University team found that MBSR brought about changes in the areas of the brain involved in attention, as well as relief from symptoms of social anxiety.
Taming the Monkey Mind
One of the most exciting studies in the last little while, carried out at Yale University, found that meditation decreases activity in the default mode network (DMN), the network of the brain responsible for mind-wandering and self-centered thoughts: known in Buddhism as the “monkey mind.” The DMN is activated when we drift off, not thinking about anything specific; when our minds just wander from thought to thought. Since mind-wandering is typically associated with being less happy, worry and rumination, it’s no wonder people are turning to meditation for help. Several studies have shown that meditation, through quieting down the DMN, appears to do just this. And even when the mind does start to worry or wander, because of the new connections that form, meditation practitioners are better at snapping back out of it.
Meditation Changes your Brain
Harvard found that mindfulness meditation can actually change the structure of the brain! Eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was found to increase structure in the region of the brain which governs learning and memory, and in certain areas of the brain that play roles in emotional regulation and self centered processing. There were also decreases in brain cell volume region responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress. These physical changes matched the study participants’ reports of their stress levels, demonstrating that meditation not only changes the brain, but it changes our perception and feelings as well. In fact, a follow-up study found that after their meditation training, changes in the areas of the brain linked to mood and arousal were also linked to drastic over all improvements in how participants said they felt, shifting their psychological well-being too!
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