10 Science-Based Reasons to Meditate
People come to learn meditation for all sorts of different reasons. When I first began teaching meditation people came to my classes because they wanted to reduce stress, increase their vitality, and get better sleep, all fairly practical (and beneficial) reasons. Today when I ask the question, “Why do you want to meditate?” I see a shift towards a different answer. People tell me they just want some peace of mind and inner calmness in our increasingly sped up world of pinging texts and endless to do lists. I shouldn’t be surprised, in a world where everyone wants a piece of you, it makes sense we’re craving inner peace.
Meditation has changed my life more than anything else I have ever done, and I receive many similar testimonials from clients. But in the science world stories don’t stick as much as studies. Since the 70’s there have been fringe studies performed on meditation and researchers have known for decades that meditation can reduce stress, lower blood pressure and lift your mood. These results impressed the converted, but got little more than a nod from the medical community.
But now what an exciting time to be a meditating science lover! In the last 10 years the evidence has exploded. The prevalence of MRi’s and a groundbreaking study at Massachusetts General shows that meditation actually changes the structure of your brain. The recent findings have caught the attention of the medical community, everyone from Nobel prize winners to Dr. Oz are touting the benefits of meditating. With new studies coming out everyday, scientists have jumped on the meditation bandwagon. Here’s why: let’s look at the top 10 scientific reasons to meditate.
1) Decreases stress response, anxiety and depression
The famous brain study at Mass. General, the one that set off a flurry of meditation and brain studies took fMri scans of participants before and after 8 weeks of meditation.
What the scans revealed is that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the amygdala, the brain’s “fight or flight” center, shrunk in size. This area of the brain, associated with fear and emotion is heavily involved in our response to stress.
It’s important to point out that it’s our response to stress the we are measuring, not stress itself. Meditating will not magically make your life perfect, but it will change how you respond to our daily and life stresses.
The amygdala also shows an unusual high level of activity in people suffering from depression. (When patients respond positively to antidepressants, this over activity is reduced.) Recent studies have shown meditation to be as effective in lessening depression as anti- depressants. This may be related to how meditation is associated with reducing the amygdala, causing an effect similar to the medications but without any side effects.
Meditate for mental health.
2) Improves memory
This same Mass General study showed that while the stress areas was shrinking, the hippocampus, the grey matter of the brain associated with memory and learning actually increased in size.
What is really exciting about the Mass General results is that they were from only practicing meditation for half an hour each day for 8 weeks. We’ll discuss later the remarkable studies involving monks who had meditated for 10,000 hours (not all at once ), but this study showed how even small doses of meditation can have tangibly beneficial effects.
One study, involving participants with no previous meditation experience showed significant increases in visuo-spatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning after only 4 days!
Meditate for better learning and memory.
3) Improves immune system
Meditation can help improve and regulate your body’s immune response, making you less susceptible to illness and infection.
One practical study shows how a group of meditating participants tested for their response to an influenza vaccine had a significant increase in antibodies compared to the non-meditating control group.
Meditate for a stronger immune system.
4) Decreases inflammation
Inflammation is common in heart disease and stroke patients and is linked to atherosclerosis, the buildup of fatty deposits in the inner walls of arteries. An artery to the heart that’s blocked causes a heart attack. A blocked artery in or leading to the brain causes a stroke.
Here’s an interesting study that tracked the post inflammatory response in meditating participants in a post-stress situation. The meditating group had a significant smaller amount of inflammation than the non-meditators. even though they experienced the same amount of stress.
Meditate for a healthy heart.
5) Increases neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity refers to the capacity of the brain to change and rewire, in essence to make new connections. This means with experience the neurons of the brain can find new ways to talk to each other and share information. This can be very valuable when it comes to learning a new skill or changing an undesired behaviour.
When we age this ability sometimes degrades, and our grey matter like our muscles mass seems to shrink. Reminds me of the adage “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, or the somewhat dismissive “old people are set in their ways”. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Fun fact: Juggling is another great way to increase neuroplasticity!
Scientist Sarah Lazar is a leading researcher on meditation and cortical thickness (how thick or big our grey matter is ). Her research has shown that cortical areas of the brain are thicker in meditators compared to non-meditators, particularly in areas of the brian associated with working memory and executive decision making. One study actually showed that 50 year old meditators had the same amount of cortex as the 25 year olds! This shows that meditation can slow down the age-related shrinking of your brain.
Meditate for a bigger brain!
6) More creativity
Studies have been done to show the cognitive fluidity of people who meditate and their ability to adapt and use original problem solving. One of my favourite (and in itself very creative) studies shows non-meditators had greater cognitive rigidity than regular meditators. Cognitive rigidity is in a sense being blinded by past experiences, that is if something worked in the past, immediately apply it to a new problem.
Fun fact: The Walt Disney Company was an early adopter of meditation in the workplace, and they saw a dramatic increase in creativity after employees meditated on creative solutions.
The non-meditators fell into this style of thinking and kept using outdated solutions. Even when there was an easier and obvious solution they couldn’t see it because they were stuck in what the researchers called “the trap.” The people who meditated weren’t stuck in this rut and were able to solve problems in more novel ways.
Perhaps the meditators were more in the moment, practicing what we call present moment awareness. Their past experiences had less hold on them and they were able to respond to what was in front of them, their actions untainted by the past.
Meditate for more creativity.
“Mind the Trap”: Mindfulness Practice Reduces Cognitive Rigidity
7) Makes you younger
Could meditation be the new fountain of youth? First a crash course on telomeres, or what scientist are calling the key to longevity. A telomere is like a cap on the end of your chromosome, which protects the end from deteriorating or fusing with other chromosomes (which would destroy or mix up your genetic info). Scientists came up with this great analogy; a telomere is like the plastic bit on the end of your shoelace that keeps the lace from fraying and getting caught. Over time due to cell division, this end cap whittles away, and this shortening is associated with aging, diseases and a higher risk of death. Telomere research promotes the idea that cellular aging correlates to the age of the whole organism. In other words healthy cell, healthy body.
In 2009 Elizabeth Blackburn won the Nobel Prize in Physiology for discovering telomerase, an enzyme that can lengthen telomeres and prevent chromosomes from being whittled down. Telomerase is like a protective antidote to the cell’s aging process; the body’s built in elixir of youth and cell regeneration. So where does meditation fit in?
Blackburn and other researchers did a study comparing a group of non-meditators with meditators on retreat and found there was a 30% increase in the telomerase activity of the meditators. This increase helps protect telomere length, thus slowing down cell (and age) decline.
Another intriguing study took this even further. It compared the telomere length of experienced meditators to non-meditators and found that meditators had longer telomeres. The researchers offered the possibility that meditation could actually lengthen your telomere length, and consequently a cell’s longevity. Since short telomeres are a marker of accelerated aging, the longer the better.
Meditate to slow down aging. (Course if you are a true yogi, you probably shouldn’t lie about your age.)
8) Emotional regulation
Emotional regulation or self-regulation is defined as 1) the ability to respond to an experience or stimuli with a range of emotions in a manner that is socially acceptable, yet 2) also flexible enough to permit spontaneous/ natural reactions. The first part means don’t react without thinking and lose it, that is if you are emotionally regulated and a car cuts you off, you don’t chase after the driver and rear end him in a fit of rage. Part two, being flexible means you don’t suppress all your emotions either, and turn into a knotted up automaton. Self-regulation means feeling and being aware of our emotions in a given situation and then making a conscious choice on what action to take.
We saw earlier how meditators showed significantly larger volumes of the right hippocampus. Studies also shows the grey matter in orbito-frontal area of the brain increase. Both the hippocampus and the orbital frontal cortex have been mapped for emotional regulation and response control. The orbitofrontal cortex in particular seems to let us defer certain immediate gratifications and suppress certain emotions in order to obtain greater long-term benefits. According to the researchers the increase of all this grey matter in these regions might account for meditators’ abilities abilities to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful behavior.
Mediate for a balanced and aware emotional life.
9) Decrease pain
Two regions that are normally functionally connected, the anterior cingulate cortex (associated with registering unpleasant and painful stimuli) and parts of the prefrontal cortex, appear to become disconnected in meditators. A severed or weak connection means less pain messages are sent and received. The brain in turn removes or lessens the pain stimulation.
What’s interesting about one study is that the participants were not meditating while experiencing the pain, yet the same result existed. This was a permanent change in their brain which led to decreased pain.
Meditate for pain relief.
10) What about inner peace?
Now what about the need I brought up in my intro, the quality that at so many of my students are looking to cultivate, inner peace. Has meditation been scientifically proven to bring you inner peace? Here’s where those monks with the 10,000 hours come in.
Neuroscientist Richard Davidson, has led experiments comparing long time Buddhist meditating monks (each with at least 10,000 meditation hours logged) with volunteers who had just recently learned to meditate. The participants began meditating on compassion and lovingkindness to all beings, while hooked up to machinery that would record their brain waves.
As both groups were meditating one kind of brain wave measured very strong; gamma waves. Gamma waves are one of the highest frequency waves that can reach all parts of the brain. Theories associate them with genius IQ’s, peak concentration and unity consciousness / unconditional love. The newbie meditators experienced a slight rise in gamma wave activity, but when the monks began their meditation the levels of gamma waves kept rising and rising. The gamma waves of the monks were the largest ever recorded in humans (except for those having a seizure). And even after the monks stopped meditating they continued to emit high gamma waves.
Later Dr. Davidson took fMri’s scans of all his participants. The scans of both groups showed increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain associated with self-control, happiness and compassion. In addition,the monks had much greater activation in brain regions called the right insula and caudate, a network associated with empathy. In all cases, while the long term meditators exhibited dramatic brain changes, there were positive changes for the short term meditators as well. So while 10,000 hours might be a lofty aspiration, even nominal mediation can increase your compassion, happiness and love.
So yes, meditate for inner peace and compassion.
So there you go 10 science backed reasons to meditate. Whatever reason you pick, I hope you will agree with science that practicing some meditation leads to a healthier and happier life.