Meditation is about more than just relaxing.
In fact, if I listed the following meditation benefits on the package of a new pill or potion, you’d be rightly sceptical.
But all these come from a simple activity which is completely free, involves no expensive equipment, chemicals, apps, books or other products.
But first, what are all these meditation benefits?
Meditation may make us feel calmer while we’re doing it, but even better is the fact that these benefits spill over into everyday life.
Desborders et al. (2012) scanned the brains of people taking part in an 8-week meditation program, before and after the course.
This means that meditation benefits lasting emotional control, even when you are not meditating.
After practising meditation, people typically become much less reactive to things which previously piqued their emotions.
You can measure this through their skin conductance or with neuroimaging.
This is why it can be so useful for anxiety, since anxiety is a heightened emotional reaction to both thoughts and events.
Change The Brain
Meditation is such a powerful things that, after only 8 weeks, the brain’s structure changes.
To show these effects, images of 16 people’s brains were taken before and after they took a meditation course Hölzel et al., 2011.
Compared with a control group, grey-matter density in the hippocampus–an area associated with learning and memory increased.
One of the meditation benefits is that regular meditators experience less pain
Grant et al. (2010) applied a heated plate to the calves of meditators and non-meditators. The meditators had lower pain sensitivity.
How? Through training! Zen meditators appear to thicken certain areas of their cortex and this appears to be underlie their lower sensitivity to pain.
Would you like your brain to work faster?
Zeidan et al. (2010) found significant meditation benefits for novice meditators from only 80 minutes of meditation over 4 days.
Despite their very brief period of practice meditators improved on measures of working memory, executive functioning and visuo-spatial processing.
Improvements seen on the measures ranged from 15% to over 50%.
At its heart, meditation is all about learning to concentrate.
An increasing amount of studies now underline the meditation benefits for attention.
For example, Jha et al. 2007 sent 17 people who had not practised meditation before on an 8-week training course in mindfulness-based stress reduction, a type of meditation.
These 17 participants were then compared with a further 17 from a control group on a series of attentional measures. The results showed that those who had received training were better at focusing their attention than the control group.
Zeidan et al. (2013) found that four 20-minute meditation classes were enough to reduce anxiety by up to 39%.
These meditations work because of four central meditation benefits.
For example, mindfulness meditation has been shown to have therapeutic benefits in depression, anxiety, substance abuse, chronic pain and eating disorders.
Its benefits extend out to physical features like lower blood pressure and lower cortisol levels.
All of this is great, but, how can it be that this type of practice can have these beneficial effects on such a broad range of conditions?
Well, let’s examine this and start with:
Awareness of your own body has long been taught as one of the foundations of mindfulness meditation.
“…his mindfulness that “There is a body” is maintained to the extent of knowledge and remembrance.
And he remains independent, unsustained by (not clinging to) anything in the world. This is how a monk remains focused on the body in and of itself.”
As a result of practising mindfulness, people report higher awareness of the sensations in their body, of the thoughts in their minds, how things taste and so on.
Being mindful may also help with empathising with others because knowledge of the self provides insight into others.
All these are often missed as the mind wanders randomly around.
One of the first challenges for anyone learning to meditate for the first time is maintaining attention.
It’s only when you try to concentrate on something as simple as your breath going in and out for any length of time that you discover the full spectrum of your distractability.
With practice, though, it becomes easier and the blossoming of attentional control has all sorts of wonderful knock-on effects.
As the great psychologist William James once wrote, controlling attention is at “the very root of judgement, character and will”.
New Sense Of Self
Becoming mindful leads to being able to see in action the thought processes that manufacture what feels like ‘the self’ to us.
This can produce a startling revelation that is a central tenet of Buddhism: there is no such thing as a permanent, unchanging self.
The Dalai Lama says:
“This seemingly solid, concrete, independent, self-instituting I under its own power that appears actually does not exist at all.”
Studies have found that this realisation leads to greater self-acceptance, higher self-esteem and a more positive self-representation.
These changes can also be seen physiologically in the brain with lower activation of the default mode network.
This network has been implicated in our self-referencing mind-wandering.
Free from some of these endless and tiring concerns, we can find more peace.
Crucial changes in brain activity
Meditation can change the brain’s activity in important ways.
Researchers have tested this by applying heated paddles to participants’ feet and scanning their brains (Zeidan et al., 2011).
They found that meditators who’d done nothing more than four 20-minute classes showed lower activation in the somatosensory cortex, an area of the brain crucial to the experience of pain.
At the same time, they had higher levels of activation in the anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula and the orbito-frontal cortex.
The lead author of the study explains the relevance of these areas:
“These areas all shape how the brain builds an experience of pain from nerve signals that are coming in from the body.
“Consistent with this function, the more that these areas were activated by meditation the more that pain was reduced.
One of the reasons that meditation may have been so effective in blocking pain was that it did not work at just one place in the brain, but instead reduced pain at multiple levels of processing.”
Over time meditation can actually thicken certain critical areas of the brain.
One study has compared the brains of those who meditate regularly with non-meditators (Grant et al., 2010).
They found that certain areas of the cortex in particular the anterior cingulate were thicker in meditators than non-meditators.
This shows that meditation not only changes the activity in this part of the brain, but also seems to make it larger.
Like anticipation, the way a person thinks about their pain is crucial to how they experience it.
Brain imaging data from a study by Grant et al. (2010) of Zen meditators versus non-meditators has shown less activity in the areas of the brain associated with emotion, cognition and memory (the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and hippocampus).
The results suggest that Zen meditators may have a training-related ability to disengage some higher-order brain processes, while still experiencing the stimulus.”
A study by Ren et al. (2011) has looked at another crucial area of creativity: problem-solving.
This requires different skills because it’s about gaining a vital insight into a problem that’s already defined.
In this study, people were given insight problems to try and solve.
The results showed that, compared with a control group, those who learned a simple meditation technique, involving focusing on the breath, solved more of the insight problems.
Together all these studies show that different types of meditation may be useful for different aspects of life.
For generating new ideas, an open monitoring style performs best, then for solving an existing problem, a more focused attention style provides the best results.
So I hope you enjoyed this extensive article about meditation and that you’ll use that your advantage!
As always thanks for reading and until next time.
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