Science of Meditation

The Science of Meditation

What is Meditation?

Meditation is a practice that requires mindfulness. Contrary to what some people believe, its goal is not to empty the mind of thoughts, but to experience them objectively. That is to say, you experience your thoughts, feelings, and memories as if they were leaves floating down a stream. You watch them all come and go, holding on to nothing. You pay attention only to the moment you’re living in, but it’s deep attention, which accepts both the painful and the pleasant experiences.

🙏"First of all. It is helpful to understand that meditation is not just about feeling good. To think that this is why we meditate is to set ourselves up for failure. Even the most experienced meditator experiences psychological and physical pain. Meditation takes us just as we are. This acceptance of ourselves is called maitri - or unconditional friendliness - a direct relationship with the way we are." Pema Chodron, the Pocket

The Health Benefits of Meditation

Meditation is a powerful tool for promoting physical and mental health, reducing stress, and enhancing overall well-being. While the benefits of meditation are supported by a growing body of research, it is important to note that it should not be seen as a substitute for medical treatment for mental or physical health conditions. However, incorporating meditation into a healthy lifestyle may help promote overall well-being and enhance the effectiveness of other treatments.

Mental Health Benefits:

  • Reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression

  • Increasing feelings of calm and relaxation

  • Improving attention and concentration

  • Enhancing overall sense of well-being

Physical Health Benefits:

  • Reducing stress and stress-related disorders, such as hypertension and heart disease

  • Lowering inflammation in the body

  • Boosting the immune system

  • Improving sleep quality

  • Reducing symptoms of chronic pain

The Biology of Meditation

Daniel Goleman is a psychologist, lecturer, and science journalist whose latest book is Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, which he has co-authored with Richard Davidson reveals the science of what meditation can really do for us, as well as exactly how to get the most out of it.

People who have meditated for thousands of hours exhibit a remarkable difference in their brainwaves. Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman says we can actually see what happens in the heads of those who have achieved "enlightenment" and the results are unprecedented in science.

Researchers have been pouring more effort into studying the exact effects of meditation on human physiology. A very recent study was just released (July 2016) which discovered how meditating for only 3 days can change your brain and body even up to 4 months down the road.

In 2011, researchers at Harvard were among the first to demonstrate that just eight weeks of mindfulness meditation training caused significant increase in the thickness of the hippocampus.

The same team of Harvard researchers also found that mindfulness meditation decreases brain cell volume in the amygdala, the part of our brain responsible for fear, anxiety and stress.

Since focusing our attention on an object (ex: breath or mantra) is one of the central practices of meditation, it’s no surprise that meditation should help improve our ability to focus and be less susceptible to distractions. Improved concentration and attention is one of the most well-studied benefits of meditation.

How this happens is actually quite simple. When we focus our mind, we activate the frontal cortex and increase blood flow to this area. If we do this enough times, we start to see that enhanced blood flow activity become more stable. This activity leads to the growth of grey matter (known as cortical thickening) and can be seen in the brains of meditators. [3]

Empathy is about reading others — it’s defined as the ability to understand the feelings of another. Compassion is something different — it’s about sympathetic concern for the suffering of another or oneself. In the past 10 years, research has consistently shown that meditation enhances both of these qualities. These benefits are traced to a brain region known as the insula.

The insula is a key player in self-awareness and empathy for emotions. It enables us to be mindful of our own emotional reactions, as well as better read and understand those of others. The more empathic people are, the more the insula lights up when we witness emotions in other. Meditators show enhanced activity in the insula and greater cortical thickness in this region. More recent studies have also shown that meditation increases compassionate responses to the suffering of others.

Meditation Grows the Brain

Research has shown that regular meditation can increase the amount of grey matter in certain regions of the brain. Grey matter refers to the brain tissue that contains cell bodies, dendrites, and synapses, and is involved in various functions such as memory, emotion, and sensory perception.

Several studies have found that individuals who regularly practice meditation have increased grey matter volume in areas of the brain involved in attention, sensory processing, and emotional regulation.

  • For example, a 2011 study published in the journal Psychiatry Research found that individuals who meditated for an average of 27 years had higher grey matter volume in regions of the brain involved in attention and sensory processing compared to non-meditators. Another study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that an eight-week mindfulness meditation program led to increased grey matter volume in the hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in memory and learning.

  • The exact mechanisms by which meditation increases grey matter volume are not yet fully understood, but it is thought that regular practice may enhance neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to adapt and change in response to experiences.

Meditation Lengthens Telomeres, Slow Aging

The human brain starts to decrease in volume and weight as we age, but research has shown that long-term meditators have better preserved brains that non-meditators, as they age. They have more grey matter volume and while older meditators still had some volume loss, it wasn’t as pronounced as the older non-meditators.

Meditation also helps to protect our telomeres, the protective caps at the end of our chromosomes. Telomeres are longest when we’re young and naturally shorten as we age. Shorter telomeres are associated with stress and higher risk for many diseases including cancer, and depend on the telomerase enzyme to enable them to rebuild and repair.

Researchers at the University of California were the first to show that meditators have significantly higher telomerase activity than non-meditators. Their findings have since been replicated.

Summarized by Elissa Epel, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco, shorter telomere length in cells is linked with poorer immune system functioning, cardiovascular disease, and degenerative conditions like osteoporosis and Alzheimer's disease. The shorter the length of our telomeres, the more susceptible our cells are to dying and the more susceptible we are to disease, as we get older.

Telomere shortening happens naturally as we age, but research now shows that it can be accelerated by stress, speeding up the aging process of the body.

In 2004, Epel and her team found that that psychological stress is significantly correlated with shorter telomere length in leukocytes, antibody cells that fight disease. The study compared telomere length of premenopausal mothers caring for a chronically ill child and pre-identified to have higher objective stress to telomere length of mothers with a healthy child with lower objective stress. As predicted, the first group facing more environmental stress had significantly shorter telomere length and lower telomerase activity than the control group of mothers.

An even more striking finding was that high levels of perceived stress in both groups of women, regardless of circumstance and controlling for effects of the normal aging process, was also significantly associated with shorter telomere length and lower telomerase levels. Women with the highest levels of perceived stress in the study had telomeres shorter on average by the equivalent of one decade of additional aging compared to low-stress women. These results strongly suggest that both chronic environmental stress as well as perceived stress may induce premature aging.

Given that mindfulness practice has been historically connected to reduced ruminative thinking and stress, Epel's research team suggested in a 2009 follow-up paper that mindfulness meditation may also have potential positive effects on preservation of telomere length and telomerase activity.

In 2013, Elizabeth Hoge, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, investigated this idea by leading a study comparing telomere length of experienced loving-kindness meditation (LKM) practitioners with that of non-meditators. Results revealed that those with more years of meditation practice had longer telomere length overall, and that women meditators had significantly longer telomeres as compared to women non-meditators. These findings further support meditation's positive effect on healthy cellular aging and provide fodder for future longitudinal research that could track change in telomere length over time. [4]

Oxygen Increases Telomere Length, Reverses Aging

At a base level, we can say that meditation is simply a practice of breath air. Air is so good for our health that Israeli scientists have used oxygen therapy to reverse aging.

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy extends life, the telomeres, and everything

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy increases telomere length and decreases immunosenescence in isolated blood cells: a prospective trial

Meditation Heals the Endocrine System

Meditation has positive effects on the functioning of the endocrine system. Several studies have suggested that meditation positive effects on the functioning of the endocrine system by reducing levels of stress and inflammation.

The endocrine system is a collection of glands that produce and secrete hormones that regulate various physiological processes in the body, such as metabolism, growth and development, and stress response.

  • For example, a 2016 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that a mindfulness-based stress reduction program led to significant decreases in cortisol, a hormone that is involved in the body's stress response. Another study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that a mindfulness meditation program led to reductions in pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are markers of inflammation in the body.

Wim Hof

Wim Hof, also known as The Iceman, is a Dutch motivational speaker and extreme athlete noted for his ability to withstand freezing temperatures and other general feats of mind over matter. He attributes these feats to his Wim Hof Method (WHM), a combination of frequent cold exposure, breathing techniques, yoga and meditation. Hof has been the subject of several medical assessments and a book by investigative journalist Scott Carney.

A wide range of claims are made for the beneficial effects of the Method for human health. While a reduced inflammatory response due to hyperventilation has been documented, as well as suppression of injected endotoxins, Hof's other claims regarding the health benefits of the Method have not been scientifically proven.

One 2018 study of Wim Hof published in the journal NeuroImage used a combination of fMRI and PET/CT imaging to find

. . . forceful respiration results in increased sympathetic innervation and glucose consumption in intercostal muscle, generating heat that dissipates to lung tissue and warms circulating blood in the pulmonary capillaries. Our results provide compelling evidence for the primacy of the brain (CNS) rather than the body (peripheral mechanisms) in mediating the Iceman's [Wim Hof's] responses to cold exposure.[28]

A 2012 study of Wim Hof by a group of researchers in The Netherlands and published by the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that his "concentration/meditation during ice immersion" greatly reduced Hoff's "ex vivo proinflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokine response":

The concentration/meditation technique used by this particular individual seems to evoke a controlled stress response. This response is characterized by sympathetic nervous system activation and subsequent catecholamine/cortisol release, which seems to attenuate the innate immune response.[29]

People have died while attempting the Wim Hof Method.[30][31] Four practitioners of the WHM drowned in 2015 and 2016, and relatives suspected the breathing exercises were to blame.[30][31] Hof now cautions against using his method when diving or driving due to the possibility of blackout.[25]

Why Mental Fitness is a Public Health Issue

Mental fitness and meditation are just as important as physical education in schools, as they play a crucial role in promoting the overall health and well-being of students. While physical education is essential for building physical strength and maintaining a healthy weight, mental fitness and meditation are crucial for promoting emotional regulation, stress management, and overall mental health. By teaching students mindfulness and meditation techniques, schools can help them develop the skills and mindset needed to navigate the challenges of life with greater ease and resilience. Additionally, regular practice of mental fitness and meditation has been shown to enhance cognitive function, improve academic performance, and promote positive social interactions. By emphasizing mental fitness and meditation as equal in importance to physical education, schools can help students develop a more well-rounded approach to health and well-being, and support them in achieving their full potential both in and outside of the classroom.

Why Bhutan integrates Meditation into Public Education

Bhutan, a small Himalayan country known for prioritizing Gross National Happiness (GNH) over Gross Domestic Product (GDP), has incorporated meditation into its education program as a means of promoting mental health and well-being. The Bhutanese education system includes a curriculum on "mindfulness and life skills," which teaches students about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness practices, and provides them with opportunities to practice these skills.

The mindfulness and life skills curriculum was first introduced in 2011, and has since been integrated into the primary and secondary education system. The curriculum includes lessons on breathing exercises, guided meditations, and other mindfulness practices, and is designed to help students develop emotional regulation, self-awareness, and empathy.

In addition to formal classroom instruction, the Bhutanese education system also incorporates meditation into daily school routines. For example, many schools begin each day with a period of meditation, during which students and teachers are encouraged to focus on their breath and cultivate a sense of calm and inner peace.

The incorporation of meditation into the Bhutanese education system reflects a broader cultural emphasis on mindfulness and well-being. Bhutan has long prioritized the promotion of GNH, a holistic approach to development that values the well-being of individuals, communities, and the environment over economic growth. The inclusion of meditation and mindfulness practices in the education system is seen as a way to support this broader goal, by helping students develop the skills and mindset needed to live happy, fulfilling lives.

While it is still early to evaluate the effectiveness of the mindfulness and life skills curriculum in Bhutan, early reports suggest that it has been well-received by students, parents, and educators. Some experts have praised the Bhutanese approach to education, arguing that it represents a more holistic and humane approach to learning that could be a model for other countries seeking to promote well-being and happiness in their citizens.

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