Science and meditation are two things that one might initially regard as having no more in common with each other as Chinese calligraphy and Italian pasta. Science, however, has recently examined the eastern tradition to answer the longstanding question: how does meditation work? Is anything actually happening or is it “all in the head?”
The effects of meditation on human cognition and physical health have become the subject of numerous scientific studies in the past decade. Results are linking meditative practice to improved memory, concentration and self-control, and the lowering of stress, blood pressure and other psychological conditions.
For example, UCLA researchers are exploring the connection between meditation and resistance to age-related brain atrophy. Assistant professor Eileen Luders states that: “Meditation appears to be a powerful mental exercise with the potential to change the physical structure of the brain…. it might not only cause changes in brain anatomy by inducing growth but also by preventing reduction. That is, if practiced regularly and over years, meditation may slow down aging-related brain atrophy, perhaps by positively affecting the immune system.”
Here’s a listing of additional study results:
* M.R.I. brain scans taken before and after participants’ meditation found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress.
* High-risk patients who meditated cut their risk of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from all causes roughly in half compared with a group of similar patients who were given more conventional education about healthy diet and lifestyle. The meditators remained disease-free longer and reduced their systolic blood pressure.
* Researchers found that when meditators heard the sounds of people suffering, they had stronger activation levels in their temporal parietal junctures, a part of the brain tied to empathy, than people who did not meditate. Distressed sounds elicited stronger empathetic responses than the positive and neutral noises, and the brain activity in these regions was much stronger in the seasoned meditators.
* Meditation increases the thickness of the cortex in areas involved in attention and sensory processing, such as the prefrontal cortex and the right anterior insula. The finding is in line with studies showing that accomplished musicians, athletes and linguists all have thickening in relevant areas of the cortex.
* Mindfulness meditation holds promise for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which provokes intrusive thoughts, emotional numbness and hypervigilance. It could also lead to decreased activity in an area of the brain implicated in a range of neurological disorders, potentially even slowing down the onset of dementia.
* Scans taken after meditation training showed that every participant’s pain ratings were reduced, with decreases ranging from 11 to 93 percent. At the same time, meditation significantly reduced brain activity in the primary somatosensory cortex, an area that is crucially involved in creating the feeling of where and how intense a painful stimulus is.
An interesting debate ignited by the studies has been the suggestion that the personal beliefs of the researchers are directly influencing results by distorting scientific objectivity. These arguments were played out in a similar context during the early 20th century when psychoanalysis was causing a stir.
As science pushes forward, age-old beliefs have become increasingly threatened, marginalised and retired. It has been easy for many to imagine that all spiritual practices, meditation included, may eventually go the same way. Yet here is one example where science - far from dismantling a social practice – may, in fact, give it new life by informing and invigorating it’s processes.
Owen Nicholas is a recent graduate from Nottingham University where he majored in History and Political Science; he is involved in numerous charities aiding the elderly and ethnic minorities and teaches English to foreign students.
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