A recent study conducted by a team from UCLA showed that those who had regularly meditated for an average of 20 years had more grey matter volume in their brain than those who had not.
The Benefits of Meditation: What Does the Science Say?
The term meditation refers to a wide variety of practices that includes techniques designed to promote relaxation, build internal energy, heal or control illness or to simply contemplate or self-regulate the mind in some way. Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years as a component of numerous religions, traditions and beliefs. More recently however, its use has become more widespread as a way to help cope with the stresses of modern life, as an adjunct to medical practices or just as a general tool for self-improvement. While these thousands of years of meditative practice certainly have strong anecdotal weight behind them, modern science is now showing us that many of its purported effects indeed have measureable physiological and psychological benefits.
Meditation Can Help to Preserve Our Brains as We Age
A recent study conducted by a team from UCLA showed that those who had regularly meditated for an average of 20 years had more grey matter volume in their brain than those who had not. Brain grey matter loss is associated with many neurological conditions and a general reduction in brain function with aging. The researchers were surprised to learn that the effects were not localized, but instead encompassed regions throughout the entire brain.
Meditation Can Be an Effective Tool Against Anxiety, Depression and Pain
A 2014 review study conducted at Johns Hopkins University looked at the relationship between mindfulness meditation and its ability to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and pain. While the researchers warn that meditation is “not a magic bullet”, they did find its results comparable to pharmaceutical treatments. “Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways.” said the lead researcher. “A lot of people have this idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing, but that’s just not true.”
Meditation Can Help with Addiction
Given its effects on self-control regions of the brain, various forms of meditation can be very useful in helping people recover from addiction. One study found that mindfulness training was significantly more effective at helping people to quit smoking than conventional stop-smoking programs. It is thought that meditation can help to decouple the feelings of craving from the physical act of smoking, meaning one does not always have to lead to the other. Further research has shown that mindfulness training and cognitive behavioural techniques can also help to overcome other forms of addiction.
Meditation Can Help to Control our Brain’s “Me Center”
A very interesting study conducted at Yale University discovered that mindfulness meditation can decrease activity in the brain’s “default mode network (DMN)”, a brain network responsible for mind wandering and self-pondering thoughts. The DMN becomes active when we’re not concentrating or thinking about anything in particular; and mind wandering has been shown to be associated with being less happy and worrying about the past and future. This, and other studies, have also shown that when the mind does start to wander, people who practice meditation regularly are better at snapping back out of it to focus on the tasks at hand.
As with anything, meditation is not a panacea, but there is a growing amount of evidence that it can be beneficial to many people in a whole host of circumstances. Studies have even confirmed the cognitive and emotional benefits of meditation for school children. While meditation is not completely without risk, it does appear to be a very safe and effective practice overall, especially if one has a good teacher. Many of the benefits seen from meditative practices can have benefits with as little as a few minutes per day. When combined with a physical activity such as yoga or other exercise, the benefits start to mount up even more. So instead of picking up your phone when you next sit on the couch, try engaging some basic meditation and relaxation techniques instead. If the research is right, it could start to make a big difference to your life too.