Benefits of Meditation: Scientific Studies

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This week TED has uploaded a talk enthusiastically endorsing meditation. TED and meditation, or ‘TEDitation’ -it’s a combination cynics are already dubbing an unsightly collision between facile pseudo-scientific hot air – and meditation. Seriously though, it’s been known for some time that technology and meditation is a match made in Nirvana- particularly in medicine. TED noted a few scientific reports into the effects of meditation that have been carried out in the last year, but I wanted to go back a bit further and simply summarise the key findings of those studies which came to light in my brief search. I’m not a scientist so I’m not going to explicate the primary sources. (I plan on periodically updating and refining this post).

Neurological Benefits

Speaking to the BBC in 2011, Zoran Josipovic, a world leader in MRI scanning with regard to this issue stated that “Meditation research, particularly in the last 10 years or so, has shown to be very promising because it points to an ability of the brain to change and optimise in a way we didn’t know previously was possible.”i

A 2005 study of Buddhist monks in Current Biology found that their advanced concentration skills varied in correlation with their levels of experience at mediation. According to the BBC the Australian “scientists say [the monks'] ability to override… basic mental response[s] indicates how the brain can be trained.”ii Further, a 2012 study published in the Proceedings of Graphics Interface indicated that eight weeks meditation training was able to make multitasking activities which required high levels of concentration significantly less stressful.iii

According to the BBC in 2008, Massachusetts researcher Sara Lazar has “compared the brains of… experienced [meditation] practitioners with people who had never meditated and found that there were differences in the thickness of certain areas of the brain’s cortex, including areas involved in the processing of emotion. … she believes that meditation had caused the brain to change physical shape.”iv

Another large study using MRI scanners, which was published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in 2012, appears to confirm Lazar’s belief. “Researchers at UCLA… were fascinated to find that long-time meditators showed higher levels of gyrification (a folding of the cerebral cortex that may be associated with faster information processing).” Moreover, the extent of this folding was directly correlated with the level of meditation experience the subject had.v

In his research into the effects of meditation on concentration (Lutz et al., 2009), Richard Davidson discovered significant beneficial “behavioral changes [which] were predicted by specific changes in prefrontal brain function that was measured before and after the three-month retreat. He continues: “Findings such as this lead us to the view that controlling the mind should best be regarded as a skill that can be enhanced through training.”

Emotional Benefits

Research presented by Kishore Chandiramani at the Royal College of Psychiatrists 2001 annual conference in London reported that inmates at a British prison who practised meditation “were less prone to depression, feelings of hostility and helplessness and a sense of hopelessness.” According to the BBC, similar results were seen in prisons in Washington State and in India. The practise was also correlated with lower use of cigarettes and illegal drugs. vi

A 2003 study in Psychosomatic Medicine reported that the introduction of regular meditation over as short a period as 8 weeks had both psychological and physiological benefits. According to the BBC, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison “measured electrical activity in the frontal part of the brain. They say this region was more active on the left side [the logical side] in the individuals who meditated and was associated with lower anxiety and a more positive emotional state.vii When they scanned the brains of Buddhists who meditate regularly the researchers found that this area of their brains is “constantly lit up and not just when they are meditating.”viii Similar research published in New Scientist, again in 2003, found that Buddhists who meditate regularly were less susceptible to fear, shock and anger.ix

Wisconsin researcher Dr Richard Davidson believes “that ‘by meditating, you can become happier, you can concentrate more effectively and you can change your brain in ways that support that.’ This idea that meditation could improve the wellbeing of everyone, even those not struggling with mental illness, is something that is exciting researchers. Professor Williams believes it has huge potential. ‘It involves dealing with expectations, with constantly judging ourselves – feeling we’re not good enough… And that is something which is so widespread in our communities.x

The treatment Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) has been introduced on the NHS- it differs from Cognitive Behavioural Theory (CBT) in being based upon meditation. In 2008 the BBC reported that “MBCT is recommended for people who are not currently depressed, but who have had three or more bouts of depression in their lives. Trials suggest that the course reduces the likelihood of another attack of depression by over 50%.”xi According to the BBC, in 2012 there had been six large scale randomized trials that corroborated rate.xii

Physiological Benefits

In 2001 the BBC reported that meditation was to be used on the National Health Service for its analgesic (or pain killing) effect with patients suffering from conditions including HIV and cancer.xiii

A 1999 study in Psychosomatic Medicine found that the practice of meditation daily reduced the risk of heart disease in at least two ways: by lowering stress levels and by keeping blood vessels open, thereby combating high blood pressure.xiv

According to New Scientist in 2011, “There is some evidence that meditation boosts the immune response in vaccine recipients”xv “Participants [in the 2003 Psychosomatic Medicine study mentioned above] were… given a flu jab at the start of the study and those who meditated had higher levels of antibody”.xvi Similarly, a link has been made to slowing the progression of HIV.xvii

In 2012 a longitudinal study was published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes which saw a group of 100 African Americans who meditated every day between 2001 and 2009 receive “a 47% reduction in deaths, heart attacks and strokes” compared to an equal sized group of non-meditating African Americans.xviii According to Time: “The great lengths to which the researchers of the Circulation study went to make their trial scientifically rigorous, however, should reinforce the results in the eyes of some skeptics. The scientists adjusted for the effects of weight, smoking behavior, and diet, all of which can influence heart attack, stroke and early heart death rates. And while the participants in both groups exercised more and cut back on alcohol during the study, they did so at similar rates, making these changes unlikely to be responsible for the differences in health outcomes either.”xix

(I understand that some of the earlier, less rigorous studies in this area have presented links between meditation and increased fertility and the alleviation of asthma. While I have limited myself to the major studies I heard about, these links may well be corroborated among the more serious research I didn’t look into.)

Finally, as an educator I would like to give a shout out to all those who are involved doing meditation with children.[XX] As the above should make well clear it is a most valuable endeavour.

References

5 thoughts on “Benefits of Meditation: Scientific Studies

      • yes same, I have been attempting this routine for so many years (with little success). But this year I am truly motivated. It helps me to state my intention and to recognise I am doing this for a reason; i.e. greater happiness & wellbeing for myself and those around me, prior to starting my meditation.

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