The Science Behind Meditation

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The Science Behind Meditation

The benefits of daily meditation practice are endless, however, less than 10% of Americans engage in the practice.  Why aren’t more people motivated to meditate?  Meditation may sometimes seem too elusive, as if it is something that only monks would do for hours on end every day.  There’s often not enough talk about the substantial impact meditation can have on well-being and too much focus on stereotypical connotations associated with the practice.

While mindfulness or meditation may seem like a hippy activity with no real purpose, there is actually an abundance of science to prove that changes actually happen in the brain when a person adopts a daily meditative or mindfulness practice.  In 2011, neuroscientists at Harvard conducted an experiment that examined the brains of 16 people before and after undergoing an eight-week mindfulness course.  The results of the brain scans showed that participation in a meditative practice is associated with changes in the concentration of gray matter in areas of the brain involved in learning and memory, regulating emotion, sense of self, and overall perspective.  This ability to scan the brain and create tangible evidence of the positive changes that daily meditation can have allows skeptics to understand the truly scientific side of a mindfulness practice.  Science shows that people who meditate regularly experience reduced anxiety and depression, improved sleep, increased compassion, longer attention span, reduced pain, less reactivity, and an overall happier mood.  These benefits begin almost immediately, and accumulate over time, allowing a consistent meditator to experience positive effects continuously.

Are you convinced of the benefits and ready to start?  Just find a quiet place and sit in a comfortable chair with both feet on the ground and close your eyes.  Focus on your breath and clear your mind.  If a thought comes, acknowledge it and gently bring your focus back to your breath (this may happen almost constantly in the beginning, but don’t worry, it’s part of the process).  When you are finished, gently open your eyes and slowly ease back into daily activities.  Start with a five minute session, and increase it as you feel comfortable.  If you feel more comfortable with guided meditation, try meditation apps for smartphones like Headspace, One Giant Mind, and Insight.

Need more motivation or scientific proof?  Watch the TED talks by

Light Watkins and Sara Lazar.

 

References

Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E., Gould, N., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R., .Haythornthwaite, A. (2014). Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being. JAMA Internal Medicine JAMA Intern Med, 174(3), 357.

Hölzel, B., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191(1), 36-43.

Lazar, S., Kerr, C., Wasserman, R., Gray, J., Greve, D., Treadway, M.,  Fischl, B. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. NeuroReport, 16(17), 1893-1897.