Buddhist monks have been practicing meditation for millennia. They learned to quiet their minds, block distractions, connect with their inner selves and to achieve calmness. This ancient practice has continued through to modern times. Its widespread growth couldn’t have been timelier – what with the massive use and abuse of technology as well as the busy, stress-filled lifestyles we lead today. Meditation studies have helped us to discover how meditation works and what effects it has on our brains. After conducting thorough meditation research, scientists are intrigued by the potentially life-changing benefits of this practice.
The science of meditation
One recent study on mindfulness meditation was conducted by the University of British Columbia. The meta-analysis study was led by a man called Kieran Fox. It concluded that the brains of meditators looked structurally different from those of non-meditators. For instance, the anterior cingulate cortex was found to have increased tissue mass. This area is associated in controlling impulses and maintaining attention. The brains of consistent meditators was also found to have thicker tissue in those regions responsible for body awareness, enhanced focus, stress management and attention control. These changes to the brain reflect a larger truth about brain neuroplasticity: the ability of our brains to develop lasting structural changes throughout our lifetime.
Through meditation research, scientists have debunked the widely held myths about meditation. Meditation studies have also allowed us to get a sneak peek of what actually happens when we meditate. According to the research by Fox, some brain regions are activated while others are deactivated during meditation. With regular practice, the amygdala (that brain region linked with processing sadness, anxiety and a myriad of negative emotions) shrinks in size. Despite the interesting results we’ve had so far, a lot of questions about the science of meditation still linger.
The questions that abound
One major question being asked in different spheres is how much the aforementioned effects of meditation vary from one individual to another, and why so. Certain meditation experts concur that different individuals respond to mindfulness meditation in their own unique ways. These variations could result from an assortment of issues including personality, temperament and genetic makeup. While scientists aren’t exactly sure why these variations exist, a psychological approach suggests there are obvious differences in peoples mental makeup. Other people wonder whether mindfulness can be a healthy 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 meditation techniques to help patients manage their deficits in self-regulation.
Dr. Maria Camara, a revered psychologist and meditation expert, shares her views on the science of meditation in her Mind Talk. She says that meditation trains the mind to stop grasping upon issues, instead to learn to accept and let go. That’s precisely the main idea behind mindfulness – to remain anchored in the present moment, allowing different thoughts to enter and leave your mind uninterrupted. Once you learn to stop thinking about every single thought that pops into your mind, you’re one step closer to achieving mindfulness.
How does meditation help to improve attention?
- Sustained attention: meditators are able to focus on one particular task and complete it successfully. They especially perform better when the task allocated was completely unexpected, indicating that their preparedness and vigilance improves with consistent meditation.
- Selective attention: this involves picking out the most relevant stimuli to focus on. Consistent meditators are able to limit their attention to sensory inputs and thus perform better in tasks demanding selective attention.
- Executive control attention: this type of attention inhibits the brain’s proclivity to consciously process distracting information, including thoughts relating to future or past events. Frequent mindfulness meditators have been found to perform exquisitely in executive control attention compared to non-meditators.
If you’re new to this practice or need some extra motivation to continue, guided meditation will definitely benefit you. The Mindworks: Guided Meditation App is one of the best meditation resource out there. It contains numerous Mind Talks and daily meditations that will enrich your life.