Meditation is an ancient practice that is finally making waves in scientific research. For the past decade or so, scientists have been using modern technology to observe the reported benefits of meditation as they appear in the brain. Many are skeptical that meditation can have so many benefits, but indeed it does.
In 2011, a team at Harvard found that mindfulness meditation can actually change the structure of the brain. Eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was found to increase cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory, and in certain areas of the brain that play roles in emotion regulation and self-referential processing.
Even just a few minutes of meditation a day can make rush hour traffic more bearable, work stress more tolerable, and sustained focus more achievable. Here are six proven ways that meditation changes the brain for the better:
1. Boosts Your Immune System
A mindfulness meditation practice has been shown to boost the immune system in two ways. First, the body has an increased antibody response when exposed to viruses, such as influenza.1 Second, the brain has a reduced stress-induced immune response that would otherwise lead to inflammation and a compromised immune system.2 An improved immune system means improved health, thanks to meditation.
2. Combats Depression
In an 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course, participants were treated for depression and anxiety. The goal was to modify unhealthy cognitive practices that lead to rumination and dysfunctional beliefs. At the end of the study, the participants that had received the course showed significant reduction in their depressive symptoms than those who had not.3
3. Increases Gray Matter
Meditators have significantly larger volumes of gray matter in the regions of the brain most associated with positive emotions.4 So, not only can meditation increase your brain size but it can also improve your ability to remain positive in the process.
A large meta-analysis of 123 studies showed consistent positive differences in prefrontal cortex and body awareness regions. After reviewing all results, consistent and medium-sized brain structure differences were suggested. In another study done in individuals suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, they found that an eight-week mindfulness-based intervention increased grey matter density in several areas of the brain compared to a control group receiving usual care.
4. Increases Focus and Attention
While many people assume that a steady and dedicated meditation practice is required in order to receive its benefits, this simply isn’t true. According to one study, just four days of meditation practice can significantly improve your working memory, executive functioning, and visuospatial processing. 5
5. Slows Aging
Aging can be seen at the cellular level by the health and length of our telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of our DNA. Stress and time break down telomeres so that our DNA is less protected, allowing our cells to break down as well. This, essentially, is the process of ageing.
Meditation reduces the effects of stress on our telomeres so that they do not break down as quickly compared to those who do not practice meditation.6 Longer telomeres mean a slower ageing process, all thanks to meditation.
On top of stress reduction, given that the frontal lobe is one of the brain regions most disrupted by ageing, meditation’s ability to increase brain matter in this area highlights the potential for meditation as a tool to preserve cognitive health in older adults.
6. Reduces Anxiety and Mental Stress
An 8-week meditation course significantly reduced anxiety among participants both immediately at the end of the course and at a 3-month checkup, according to one study.7 The most impressive part of this study, though, was that after a 3-year follow up, the participants still demonstrated a significant reduction in anxiety compared to participants that had not received the meditation course.
So is meditation worth it? It depends on your end goal, though it seems like virtually anyone can benefit from any one of these effects. The biggest hurdle to meditation has very little to do with meditation, itself. Instead, many people are hesitant to give meditation a try because of the stigma that is attached to it. Previously assumed to be a spiritual practice, many people are afraid to incorporate meditation into their daily habits for fear of entering a sacrilegious practice. The truth, though, is that meditation is simply a practice of sustained attention. It can be religious if you’d like, though it’s mostly just an effective way to reshape your brain so that you can move through life more easily.
About Muse: the brain sensing headband: When accompanied with an app available for both iOS and Android the Muse headband is a sensory device that is designed to help with meditation more rewarding by providing real-time EEG based audio and visual feedback. Learn more at: http://www.choosemuse.com/