A Look at Some of the Benefits of Meditation Through the Lens of Science

May 28, 2012 at 12:13 pm 1 comment

By James McVeigh, clinic assistant

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“Meditation brings wisdom; lack of meditation leaves ignorance. Know well what leads you forward and what holds you back”

-Buddha

For Buddhists, meditation is a practice key to obtaining enlightenment and nirvana. However some of the wisdom that the Buddha refers to is in the form of qualities such as increased awareness, tranquility and concentration; qualities that appeal to a wide range of people, regardless of any belief in karma or rebirth. Given how these benefits seem separate from any religious side of the practice, it is perhaps interesting to consider what meditation might induce biologically. Have any of these mental changes been measured or objectively displayed through scientific analysis?

Unfortunately, understanding how meditation might affect the brain in terms of science is a considerable challenge. The brain and how it functions even on a fundamental basis remains mostly a mystery. Rather than trying to comprehend how and why the practice might change the brain for the better, observing its effects on structure and activity using scanners could offer clues. Even then, only recently have researchers looked at what meditations impact on the brain might actually be.

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A 2004 study by researchers at the University of Wisconcin used brain imaging both during and after meditation and compared the results with a control group. They found that changes in mental state and ‘resting electroencephalogram patterns’ occur and persist beyond the time-period of active meditation. What this means is that long-term meditation practice causes a permanent change in the activity of the brain – perhaps this is the biological representation of mindfulness.

Another study published in 2006 by researchers from Harvard and Yale went further and examined the actual physical structure of the brain before, during and after meditation. They used the process of Magnetic resonance imaging which involves aligning ions throughout the brain with a magnetic field, followed by using a radio field to change the alignment to one which reflects the consistency of the material.

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The researchers found that ‘Brain regions associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing were thicker in meditation participants than matched controls, including the prefrontal cortex and right anterior insula.’ In other words, the regions of the brain which would be involved in mindfulness are observed to increase in size. These parts of the brain are known to diminish with age, and the study also found that there was a larger size increase in older participants; showing that meditation can be an effective tool to regenerate lost brainpower.

Whilst the processes of the brain and how it might be affected by meditation remain clouded in mystery, these studies have shown that the practice has real and long-lasting biological effects on the mind, lending strong weight to claims of mindfulness and other mental state benefits. These studies are particularly important as they measure actual physical changes; laying the foundations of why and how the process works rather than merely stating that it does work by displaying a correlation.

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