A simple practice with a history that spans centuries, meditation is steadily becoming more understood in the Western world. Whether you do it to maintain good "mental hygiene" or to attain higher states of consciousness, regular meditation has been proven to significantly improve one's quality of life, especially in the realms of physical and mental health. Here are just a few meditation benefits that researches have discovered.
Lower Stress Levels, More Emotional Balance
In a 2012 study run by University of Arizona and University of Washington, a group of human resources managers were separated into three smaller groups. One third participated in mindful meditation training, while another third underwent body relaxation training. After eight weeks, the three groups were given a stressful multitasking test, during which it was recorded that the meditation group reported lower stress levels than both of the other groups. Stanford University researcher Emma Seppälä explains that Meditation gives people a certain amount of control over their nervous systems and emotions. "Studies have shown improved ability to [permanently] regulate emotions in the brain... It's very empowering."
More Focus, Less Informational Overload
Neuroscientists at MIT and Harvard found that meditators had amplified"alpha rhythms," which are the brain waves responsible for minimizing distractions. After meditating, research participants' alpha waves were significantly amplified when they focused on specific body parts. Other researches have used MRI scans on meditators to track mental activity during a meditation session. What they found was a decrease in beta waves in the brain, which means that information is being processed less actively. Sound like a bad thing? Not at all! Especially in the digital era, information overload has led many of us to anxiety, distraction, a less focus overall. Meditation slows information processing down to a trickle, allowing for more clarity of mind in the long term.
More Rationality, Less Anxiety
When we meditate, we weaken neural connections to the part of the brain known as the "Me Center," and we simultaneously strengthen the connection between the Assessment Center (the more detached, reasoning part of the brain) and the bodily sensation and fear centers. In other words, we are given the ability to more rationally look at things that would normally trigger an emotional response, such as scary or upsetting sensations.
Researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands held a study in which participants practiced focused-attention meditation as well as open-monitoring meditation. Those who did the open-monitoring meditation showed a higher level of performance on the follow-up task, an activity that asked them to come up with new ideas.
Better Memory, Increased Mental Speed
Catherine Kerr, a researcher at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and the Osher Research Center, found that people who practiced mindful meditation showed a "superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts.” This is thought to be due to the adjustment of brain waves that screen out distractions. Furthermore, researchers at UCLA found that long-time meditators showed higher levels of gyrification in the brain. Gyrification is a folding of the cerebral cortex associated with faster information processing.
Slower Aging, Preserved Cells
Sara Lazar, a researcher at Harvard University, notes that meditators also have more gray matter in the hippocampus and frontal areas of the brain. This is a good thing, as age-related effects on gray matter decrease cognition as years pass. In meditation, the brain sustains and even creates more gray matter, leading to more effective cognition. Lazar's colleague, Elizabeth Hoge, did a study that showed that meditators also have longer telomeres. Telomeres are the caps on chromosomes that indicate biological age. Longer ones show healthier, more functional cells that are more capable of fending off illness.
Meditation increases empathy and compassion, as shown by experiments held at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and the Boston University Center for Computational Neuroscience and Neural Technology. Participants were shown images of other people that were either good, bad or neutral in what they called “compassion meditation.” It was found that participants who had meditated experienced more compassion for others when shown disturbing images. Another study published in the journal PloS One in 2008 found that people who meditated regularly had more activity in their temporal parietal junctures, the part of the brain tied to empathy, upon hearing the sounds of people suffering. Those who didn't meditate regularly had less empathetic activity in the brain.
Increased Cardiovascular and Heart Health
Relaxation increases the amount of nitric oxide in the body, which causes blood vessels to open up and lessen blood pressure. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, found that 40 out of 60 patients medicated for high blood pressure could stop taking their medication after practicing meditation. Furthermore, a 2012 study published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes asked 201 people with coronary heart disease to either
1. take a health class promoting better diet and exercise
2. take a class on transcendental meditation.
For the next five years researchers followed up with the participants. They found that those who took the meditation class had a 48% reduction in their overall risk of heart attack, stroke and death.
Author: Nate Morgan