Science of Meditation

It may be interesting for you to know that gold standard scientific studies on meditation increasingly support meditation practice for our health and well-being. Here is a summary of carefully selected (only 60 of 6,000 published studies met the highest standards of scientific research) significant findings from the most respected scientific journals. These key points, listed below, are from a lecture by Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence) at Garrison Institute, NY, in 2017, where he summarized current neuroscience research on meditation. Daniel and Richard Davidson (neuroscientist) recently wrote a book, Altered Traits, that investigates the research on various forms of meditation.

Meditation, due to the brain’s neuroplasticity, both strengthens and increases connectivity in our brain tissue. Meditation is a very beneficial form of “exercise” for our mind and body, and importantly, the more you do it, the better you feel, mentally, emotionally, and physically.

What has the research shown so far?

Stress Research

Meditation influences our amygdala (where flight, flight, and freeze reactions in the limbic system are generated). It allows it to be less reactive to stress and trauma that is so often triggered by our modern, fast-paced lifestyles.

Resilience

When we feel stressed out, meditators recover from these stressed feelings more quickly. Cortisol flooding is lessened in the amygdala, making stress less intense and pass quicker.

Inflammation

When we are stressed, inflammatory chemicals are released in the body, which contributes to the formation of chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, etc. Testing on long term meditators shows that inflammatory genes are turned off, resulting in less chronic disease.

Equanimity

When our amygdala is less reactive, we feel less driven and experience more equanimity with life situations. We strengthen the ability of our pre-frontal circuitry to inhibit our amygdala induced reactivity. In other words, we use our “new” brain to beneficially change the older, more primitive limbic system, where the amygdala “lives” in our brains.

Related Brain Research

Gamma Waves

When we practice meditation for a longer time, the brain’s gamma waves, connected to experiences of insight, compassion, and creativity, are enhanced. We feel a more spacious and open awareness and a sense of being ready for any experiences. More specifically, our relationship to pain and our emotional reactivity to pain is softened, made more manageable.

Pre-Frontal Cortex

Studies have shown that the thinking, planning, learning, and choosing part of the brain show definite signs of being less distracted and a corresponding increase in focused attention and concentration.

Also, since our pre-frontal cortex has a circuit that helps manage the amygdala,  we can increase, with meditation practice, the length of the gap between impulse and action.

Memory

Mindfulness types of meditation practices improve due to their strengthening of pre-frontal cortex brain circuitry, our ability to recall and retain information. Also, an important finding with longer-term meditators is less attention and memory loss due to aging. Brain shrinkage due to aging slows down. The end strands of DNA, called telomeres, are longer in meditators showing that parasympathetic helps cells recover more quickly from stress.

Empathy

Meditation practices based on kindness and compassion improve three kinds of empathy:

  • Cognitive: located in the neo-cortex (how we understand other views, ideas, and how they label and describe their world).
  • Emotional: located in the social part of the brain circuitry, is how we tune in and share others’ feelings.
  • Empathetic concern:  activates specific brain circuits that we share with all mammals, such as parental love. It is how we care and are unconditionally present with others. When we experience empathetic concern, we also feel happier.

Unconscious Bias

This is when our unseen and hidden prejudices unconsciously influence us. Cognitive research has shown these prejudices (“us” versus “them” thinking)  lessen with compassion practices. Also, the long term meditator’s brain circuitry correlated with “I, me, mine” thinking is less intense.

Brain Efficiency

The more meditation you do, the better the results are. For example, mindfulness meditation practices, attention, and concentration get better and better. And as we can more easily pay attention, the brain becomes more efficient, a well-tuned system.

Connected to this, especially for long term meditators, is that the part of the brain which generates effort tends to be more relaxed. Their brains effortlessly accomplish complex tasks without strain or excessive thinking.

In other words, as Dan Goleman, summed up his talk, “meditation is very good for you.”

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