Meditation is everywhere these days — celebrities, business people, politicians and even entire sports teams are reaping the benefits of this ancient practice. Even more impressive, and perhaps the reason for this trend, is that the scientific evidence for meditation keeps rolling in.
Far from a practice simply to “zen” you out, or help you reach enlightenment (though that would be nice, too), it’s actually a fairly serious method of brain training that has not only stood the test of time, but has also stood up to even the most rigorous scientific tests. The technology that researchers have these days to look at what the brain is doing in real time, and how it changes over time, has helped lay out the benefits of meditation in a whole new way.
“It’s no longer mysterious or new-agey — in fact, it may be one of the healthiest practices we can engage in, for both body and brain.”
Here are some of the benefits of meditation with the strongest scientific studies to back them.
RELIEF FROM “MONKEY MIND”
When we’re not doing anything in particular, our minds tend to wander — and not always to the most pleasant subjects. This propensity is affectionately called “monkey mind:” the natural tendency of our minds to bounce from thought to thought, and unfortunately, to go down negative spirals of worry and rumination. One of the central benefits of meditation, as a study from Yale University showed, is that it quiets the brain regions responsible for this unpleasant state, which are together known as the default mode network (DMN). Because our brains literally default to wandering (and, generally, to worrying), it’s important to have a practice that can deactivate those areas — and meditation seems to be one of them.
ATTENTION AND COGNITION
One of the major aims of meditation over the thousands of years it’s existed is to focus attention. Meditators often train their attention actively during meditation by focusing on a mantra or a physical object, and this is evident in changes to the attention networks of the brain. In fact, meditation enhances attention not only during meditation, but even when the person isn’t actively meditating. And to show this in the real world, one study from the University of California, Santa Barbara showed that mindfulness training helped people do better on the GREs (Graduate Record Examinations) — 16 percentage points better — not because they studied harder, but because they learned to redirect their thoughts more effectively, and their working memory improved.
Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders, not to mention a leading cause of disability across the globe. And there’s a glaring lack of effective treatments. Though meditation isn’t a cure-all for depression, research shows it can be a powerful tool to help manage it. One study from Johns Hopkins showed that meditation had a “moderate” efficacy rate — though this may not sound like much, it’s actually the same as the efficacy of antidepressants. In other studies, participants have reported significantly improved well-being and reduced anxiety, making it a good adjunct to conventional methods like antidepressants or talk therapy. (These treatments have their place, and it’s best to work with a registered health practitioner to determine what’s going to contribute to your vitality and mental health.)
STRESS AND ANXIETY
Stress reduction is becoming a necessity these days. Luckily one of meditation’s powerful benefits proven in the lab is the reduction of activity in the brain’s fear center, the amygdala. It’s even been shown to reduce its volume, in people who took an eight-week course in meditation-based stress reduction (MBSR), developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Other studies have shown that people’s stress is even reduced when in real-world situations — like having to give a speech or doing mental math before a panel of researchers.
In the last few years, research has shown that mindfulness training can be an enormous help in treating addiction. Like depression, there’s no panacea for addiction, but with the right set of tools, successful recovery is certainly possible. One study from Yale showed that mindfulness training was even more effective than the gold standard, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), in helping people quit smoking. Other studies have suggested variants of meditation like mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) can help people recover from drug and alcohol abuse as effectively as conventional treatments.
A healthy aging brain is something that most of us want to make happen — and studies have shown that the brains of people who meditate seem to shrink less over time than the brains of non-meditators. Although we all lose brain volume as we age, meditation seems to help practitioners keep what they have for longer.
GUT, HEART AND IMMUNITY
In case you thought meditation only helped brain and mental health, some studies have shown that it can actually help physical health as well. One study from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston showed that people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) reported significantly fewer symptoms after mind-body training involving meditation, and these changes were even linked to changes in their genetic profiles. Other studies have hinted that meditation may contribute to lower blood pressure and risk of heart attack. And one study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that people who learned to mediate had better immunity when given flu shots, compared to people who didn’t do the training.
TYPES OF MEDITATION
FOCUSED AWARENESS (FA)
In FA, the practitioner focuses on a verbal mantra, said out loud or silently, or a physical or imagined object. When your mind wanders, you simply bring it back to your point of focus again and again. So the practice isn’t sitting there with a perfectly clear and focused mind — it’s bringing the wandering mind back, as many times as it takes. Though this practice, attention is strengthened. Transcendental meditation (TM) is a variant of FA.
OPEN MONITORING (OM), OR MINDFULNESS
This is the more “advanced” practice, which is said to arise when a person has developed some skill in FA. In OM, you simply observe how the mind works — how it wanders, what thoughts pop up, and what feelings or physical sensations they conjure up. Learning to observe the mind, without judgment, frustration or anxiety, is one of the key aims of OM or mindfulness. Although OM can be practiced alone, it’s helpful to use a point of focus, and when the mind does wander, to simply note the wandering and bring attention back to your focus.
LOVING KINDNESS, OR METTA
This third form of meditation has practitioners send positive thoughts to people in their lives, as well as themselves. In this way, kindness can be cultivated like a skill. Sharon Salzberg, one of the best-known loving kindness teachers in the country, has often suggested to students that they meditate on some iteration of the following: “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be safe. May you live with ease.”
BODY AWARENESS, OR EMBODIMENT
Body awareness meditation facilitates and supports other mindful practices. Based on the premise that our senses are a vital pathway to experience our lives, the goal of this practice is to reconnect you to your body. Techniques include visualization, guided breath and step-by-step sensing exploration or scanning of regions of the body and even organs, tissues, bones and biological processes. There are also tools to support and prompt your attention to sensory experience. Biofeedback therapy uses electronic monitoring to show you how relaxation techniques impact your heart rate, breathing and other body functions — so that over time, you can learn to control them.
It’s important to point out that the methods often overlap, and you don’t have to subscribe to just one. Focused awareness naturally flows into OM (mindfulness) with practice, and OM is much easier to do if you have a point of focus to return to. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, incorporates elements of FA, using focus on the breath or body, and OM, the non-judgmental observation of one’s passing thoughts. And Elena Brower, a prominent yoga and meditation teacher, uses elements of attention training, loving kindness, and mindfulness in her practice and her classes.
READY TO GET STARTED NOW?
Try this simple, come-as-you-are meditation.
Find a spot to sit comfortably with your best posture.
Close your eyes and focus on the sense of your breath in four simple segments, while you count to four in your mind.
Inhale, 2, 3, 4
Hold, 2, 3, 4
Exhale, 2, 3, 4
Hold, 2, 3, 4.
Repeat for four rounds or more, then sit quietly for a moment more and resume normal breathing.
It’s that easy to include meditation in your day.