Over the last twenty years, meditation has gone from being an “out there” thing chanting men in India did to being touted as the answer to just about everything from a failing marriage to losing weight.
While it’s obviously not all that it’s hyped to be, meditation is pretty powerful stuff. Science is validating that the ancient practice not only transforms your mind, body, and brain while doing it but in lasting ways that help your mental and physical health.
Ideally, it’s a tool that leads to a post-meditative mindfulness in your life.
The Science of Meditation
In the book Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson look at the latest research and come up with the scientifically proven health benefits of meditation. They conclude that a consistent meditation practice over time can produce lasting changes, which they call altered traits, in your brain and body.
The authors do a good job of pointing out that meditation is a difficult subject to study scientifically. While the research is improving, much of the early studies were of poor quality. They also highlight that there are many different kinds of meditations that can potentially yield different results. It would be best to study each separately. The authors stress that more and better research is needed.
I was encouraged by the evidence presented that positive changes occur even with limited practice. However, the authors do clearly convey that in order to get the biggest payoffs — lasting altered traits — dedicated, sustained practice is required.
Meditation improves your body’s response to stress
According to the research, mindfulness practices calm the amygdala, the emotional center of your brain, making it less reactive. At the same time, meditators showed increased connectivity between areas of the amygdala that react to stress and the prefrontal cortex, the thinking brain. Both of these help you to be less reactive to stressors and to recover better from stress when experiencing it.
The authors write:
…there are hints in the research that these changes are traitlike: they appear not simply during the explicit instruction to perceive stressful stimuli mindfully, but even in the ‘baseline’ state, with reductions in amygdala activation as great as 50 percent.”
These are lasting changes observed even when people were not meditating which is important because chronic stress damages your brain.
Meditation increases compassion
Unlike some of the other benefits of meditation which emerge gradually — enhanced compassion shows up fairly quickly. The authors suppose that cultivating compassion may take advantage of the brain’s mammalian caretaking circuitry. These circuits grow stronger with short periods of compassion training, as in loving-kindness meditation. They write “the brain seems primed to learn to love.”
Studies show that practicing loving-kindness meditation lessens amygdala activity in the presence of suffering, while also activating brain circuits connected to good feelings and love. Hence, the brain’s circuitry for happiness is strengthened as compassion increases. The authors explain:
Loving-kindness also boosts the connections between the brain’s circuits for joy and happiness and the prefrontal cortex, a zone critical for guiding behavior. And the greater the increase in the connection between these two regions, the more altruistic a person becomes following compassion meditation training.”
Meditation trains your brain to focus
In your brain, attention can be mapped to specific regions involved in selecting and sustaining focus. The brain’s parietal cortex is like the steering wheel pointing its focus in a general direction. Once aimed, it tells your brain to zero in on a particular target. The prefrontal cortex then kicks into action and is responsible for holding your attention (or not) on that one spot.
Just as you can work out to build muscle strength, you can exercise areas of your brain to strengthen your attention skills through meditation. One study showed that three months of meditation practice can have a significant positive effect on attention and brain function. One type of meditation, in particular, focused attention meditation, showed higher levels of activity in the prefrontal and parietal cortices. Learn how to do it here.
Researchers also found that meditation helps combat habituation, which is the tendency of your brain to adapt to information in its environment – the opposite of paying attention. Studies have shown that improved attention can persist as long as five years after mindfulness training, suggesting lasting trait-like changes.
Meditation changes your relationship to self
Research shows a predictable pattern of neurological activity that’s your brain’s go-to state when it’s at rest, not focused on anything in particular, or actively engaging with its environment. This resting state of your brain is called the default mode network (DFM).
The DFM activates when you’re just letting your mind wander — revisiting memories and rehashing thoughts and happenings — known as ruminating. For most of us most of the time, ruminating is negative, unpleasant, and focused on ourselves. It’s the ongoing narrative, mental chatter, that makes up your concept of self. The authors posit that it’s probably the self-circuitry that becomes fixated on wanting or avoiding something. Hence, it is most likely responsible for emotional pain and suffering also.
During mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation, the DFM quiets down for the duration of the practice with less “me-centric” thinking. In other words, meditation helps a person stop hyper-focusing on themselves and their problems for a little while. This can help break the negative self-referencing thought loops that contribute to anxiety and depression. The authors explain it as thoughts not being so “sticky” anymore. In experienced, long-term meditators, this lack of stickiness and decreased DFM activity becomes an enduring trait.
While science has confirmed decreased activity in the DFM with mediation, the long-term results are observations made by the authors from yogis studied in the Davidson lab and from classic meditation manuals. The authors write:
The rsulting decrease in stickiness means that self-focused thoughts and feelings that arise in the mind have much less ‘grab’ and decreasing ability to hijack attention.”