People have been practicing meditation for millennia. This ancient practice is as pertinent nowadays as it was centuries ago. Meditation helps us quiet our minds, connect with our inner qualities and foster wisdom and awareness. Among the many meditation methods that are commonly practiced, mindfulness and awareness are especially precious given today’s stressful, hectic lifestyles.
Meditation research has given us insights into how meditation works and what impact it has on our brains. There have been thousands of studies involving people from all walks of life and with every imaginable psychological profile. The work goes on – scientists continue to be intrigued by the potentially life-changing benefits of these practices.
An exciting area of research involves the effects of meditation on high school kids. See our case study for how Mindworks assisted a charter high school in developing a mindfulness program.
The science of meditation
A recent meta-analysis study on the effects of mindfulness meditation on the brain was conducted by a team of researchers at the University of British Columbia. The study, titled “Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners concluded that the brains of meditators were structurally different from those of non-meditators. For instance, the anterior cingulate cortex – the area associated with controlling impulses and maintaining attention – was found to have more tissue mass. The brains of consistent meditators were also found to have thicker tissue in those regions responsible for body awareness, enhanced focus, stress management and attention control.
These observations reflect a larger truth about brain neuroplasticity: throughout a human being’s entire life, it is possible for his or her brain to undergo positive structural changes. Meditation studies have also given us a sneak peek of what actually happens when we practice. According to the research cited above, some brain regions are activated while others are deactivated during meditation. For instance, with regular practice, the amygdala (the brain region linked with processing sadness, anxiety and myriad negative emotions) shrinks in size.
A more recent article published in the Harvard Gazette called “When science meets mindfulness” looks more specifically at how mindfulness affects depression. This speaks to a question that many clinicians and their patients are asking: can mindfulness be a reliable alternative to conventional medicine in the treatment of anxiety, depression and drug addiction. This isn’t a dream anymore – some health practitioners are successfully using a variety of integrative meditation techniques to help patients manage deficits in self-regulation.
Studies have focused on how meditation impacts a very broad range of conditions, from chronic insomnia to irritable bowel syndrome to migraines and chronic pain. In most cases the results indicate that even when meditation doesn’t significantly alter the symptoms, it does make a notable difference in how sufferers manage and relate to their discomfort.
Despite the great interest in the effects of mindfulness and other forms of meditation, such as transcendental meditation, on quality of life, there has been criticism of research methods as being insufficiently rigorous. One recent meta-analysis (a sort of overview of available research results) recently published in Springer’s Annals of Behavioral Medicine looks closely at some of the studies focusing on the effects of mindfulness on chronic pain to ascertain their reliability. The conclusion was that while more rigorous research was warranted, there was a small but significant improvement concerning pain symptoms and that “Mindfulness meditation was associated with statistically significant improvement in depression, physical health-related quality of life, and mental health-related quality of life.”
Maria Camara, PhD, a Spanish psychologist and mindfulness expert, shares her views on the science of meditation in her Mindworks Mind Talk. She says that meditation trains the mind to stop grasping at issues; instead, it learns to accept and let go. That’s precisely the idea behind mindfulness: remaining anchored in the present and allowing distracting thoughts to enter and leave the mind without clinging to or rejecting them.