What is meditation?
Meditation is a mental exercise of regulating attention. It is practiced either by focusing attention on a single object, internal or external (focused attention meditation) or by paying attention to whatever is predominant in your experience in the present moment, without allowing the attention to get stuck on any particular thing (open monitoring meditation).
The word “meditate” actually means to think deeply about something. However, when eastern contemplative practices were “imported” to Western culture, this is the term that was used to define them, for lack of a better word. Nowadays meditation has more the meaning of this exercise of focusing attention than to reflect deeply.
Besides focus of attention, meditation also involves mental calmness and introspection (“looking within”).
Meditation is an individual practice, although it is often done in groups. The practitioner usually closes his eyes and keeps his body still during practice, in a seated position, for a set amount of time. But there are also ways to do walking meditation.
What are the benefits of meditation?
There are dozens of scientifically proven benefits of meditation. Studies confirm the experience of millions of practitioners: meditation will keep you healthy, help prevent multiple diseases, make you emotionally well, and improve your performance in basically any task, physical or mental. Some benefits have found to come as soon as with 8 weeks of daily practice; other benefits take longer to mature, and will depend on your intensity of practice.
Meditation is different things to different people. However, it is usually one of these three things that drive people to practice:
Specific benefit: improving your health, wellness, performance, focus, memory, creativity, self-control, etc.
Growth: personal growth, emotional healing, therapy
Spirituality: connecting with God, transcending the ego, finding peace, etc.]]
How meditation affects us?
Now that we know what’s going on inside our brains, let’s take a look at the research into the ways it affects our health. It’s in fact very similar to how exercising affects our brains.
Because meditation is a practice in focusing our attention and being aware of when it drifts, this actually improves our focus when we’re not meditating, as well. It’s a lasting effect that comes from regular bouts of meditation.
This point is pretty technical, but it’s really interesting. The more we meditate, the less anxiety we have, and it turns out this is because we’re actually loosening the connections of particular neural pathways. This sounds bad, but it’s not.
What happens without meditation is that there’s a section of our brains that’s sometimes called the Me Center (it’s technically the medial prefrontal cortex). This is the part that processes information relating to ourselves and our experiences. Normally the neural pathways from the bodily sensation and fear centers of the brain to the Me Center are really strong. When you experience a scary or upsetting sensation, it triggers a strong reaction in your Me Center, making you feel scared and under attack.
When we meditate, we weaken this neural connection. This means that we don’t react as strongly to sensations that might have once lit up our Me Centers. As we weaken this connection, we simultaneously strengthen the connection between what’s known as our Assessment Center (the part of our brains known for reasoning) and our bodily sensation and fear centers. So when we experience scary or upsetting sensations, we can more easily look at them rationally. Here’s a good example:
For example, when you experience pain, rather than becoming anxious and assuming it means something is wrong with you, you can watch the pain rise and fall without becoming ensnared in a story about what it might mean.
As a writer, this is one thing I’m always interested in and we’ve explored the science of creativity in depth before. Unfortunately, it’s not the most easy thing to study, but there is some research into how meditation can affect our creativity. Researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands studied both focused-attention and open-monitoring mediation to see if there was any improvement in creativity afterwards. They found that people who practiced focused-attention meditation did not show any obvious signs of improvement in the creativity task following their meditation. For those who did open-monitoring meditation, however, they performed better on a task that asked them to come up with new ideas.
Research on meditation has shown that empathy and compassion are higher in those who practice meditation regularly. One experiment showed participants images of other people that were either good, bad or neutral in what they called “compassion meditation.” The participants were able to focus their attention and reduce their emotional reactions to these images, even when they weren’t in a meditative state. They also experienced more compassion for others when shown disturbing images.
Part of this comes from activity in the amygdala—the part of the brain that processes emotional stimuli. During meditation, this part of the brain normally shows decreased activity, but in this experiment it was exceptionally responsive when participants were shown images of people.
Another study in 2008 found that people who meditated regularly had stronger activation levels in their temporal parietal junctures (a part of the brain tied to empathy) when they heard the sounds of people suffering, than those who didn’t meditate.
One of the things meditation has been linked to is improving rapid memory recall. Catherine Kerr, a researcher at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and the Osher Research Center found that people who practiced mindful meditation were able to adjust the brain wave that screens out distractions and increase their productivity more quickly that those that did not meditate. She said that this ability to ignore distractions could explain “their superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts.” This seems to be very similar to the power of being exposed to new situations that will also dramatically improve our memory of things.
Mindful meditation has been shown to help people perform under pressure while feeling less stressed. A 2012 study split a group of human resources managers into three, which one third participating in mindful meditation training, another third taking body relaxation training and the last third given no training at all. A stressful multitasking test was given to all the managers before and after the eight-week experiment. In the final test, the group that had participated in the meditation training reported less stress during the test than both of the other groups.
More gray matter
Meditation has been linked to larger amounts of gray matter in the hippocampus and frontal areas of the brain. I didn’t know what this meant at first, but it turns out it’s pretty great. More gray matter can lead to more positive emotions, longer-lasting emotional stability and heightened focus during daily life.
Meditation has also been shown to diminish age-related effects on gray matter and reduce the decline of our cognitive functioning.
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