In many Western nations and particularly in the United States, meditation has become a very popular practice. This is in part due to the ever-increasing body of research indicating an association between meditation and a wide variety of health benefits.
The practice of meditation is rooted in the ancient Vedic period of India and is explained in the Vedic texts, but the term “mediation” is now used more loosely to refer to a broad range of techniques such as contemplation, concentration, breathing exercises, guided meditation or movement-based mediation practices like Yoga or Tai Chi.
The true purpose of meditation, according to the Vedic texts, is to establish a deeper connection with one’s inner Self and techniques that achieve this goal either through the senses, intellect or emotions will ultimately serve this purpose. Of course, some techniques are more difficult to learn than others which may lead participants to give up on the practice fairly quickly and switch to something they find more manageable.
The Process of Meditation
To explain the process of meditation, we will refer back to the Vedic texts that describe three aspects of the human being – the physical body, inner faculty (which is further divided into the mind, intellect, Ego and Chitta) and the deep inner Self.
The Chitta is defined as the part of the inner faculty that store one’s memories and impressions. The mind serves to process sensory perceptions and has a dual character (pain and pleasure, good and bad) while the intellect serves to analyze, judge and make decisions. The Ego is considered the does and experiencer.
The deep inner Self is defined as the unchanging, unified, pure consciousness that witnesses the activities of the inner faculty and is the real source of creativity, intelligence and knowledge. Through the practice of meditation, the individual essentially creates a feedback loop where they can connect to the deep inner Self that, in turn, activates the inner faculty, which governs the working consciousness.
Connecting to one’s deep inner Self through meditation, either by focusing on breathing, the sounds of meditation music, the instructor’s voice or movement allows the person to remove their mind and consciousness from the outer world and enables them to witness their emotions and sensory perception from the point of view of the unchanging consciousness. This should result in a state of calm and peace.
Effects on the Brain
During the second half of the 20th century, the practice of meditation and its impact on brain activity and central nervous system attracted the attention of scientists and led to collaborative research in fields such as psychology, neuroscience and neurobiology.
The effects of meditation on the brain can be broken down into two categories: state changes that show what alterations occur in the brain during the act of meditating itself, and trait changes that show the influence of long-term practice.
The most frequently studied form of meditation is mindfulness meditation, an approach which originates from Zen and Vipassana techniques. The goal of mindfulness meditation is to achieve a complete focus on the current moment.
Research using neuroimaging and electroencephalographic technology has found that during the act of meditation, brain connectivity changes and, in the long term, this leads to structural differences, the development of new neural pathways and grey matter increase. This is particularly beneficial for older adults because, as the brain ages, the brain’s cortical thickness, also referred to as the grey matter, loses volume.
Meditation also improves cerebral blood to the brain’s frontal and cingulate regions which results in better executive function, concentration and impulse control.
Another study done by a team of Harvard-affiliated researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital in 2011 measured the effects of an eight-week program of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). They found increased cortical thickness in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is responsible for learning and memory and also plays a role in emotional regulation.
In the amygdala, they further observed a reduction in brain cell volume. The amygdala is a structure in the brain primarily responsible for the fight-or-flight response to perceived threats or stress. This change in the amygdala would suggest a decrease in sensitivity to stressful stimuli and fewer episodes of strong emotional reactions such as fear or anger.
Meditation and Negative Emotions
There are additional studies that indicate mediation can be used therapeutically as a tool to help manage negative emotions like fear and anger. This is of particular interest to the field of mental health because these emotions are linked to symptoms of anxiety and depression.
One small study from 2016 published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition focuses on how meditations can help people cope with anger. Twelve experienced practitioners and fifteen individuals that were new to meditation were asked to relive experiences that made them feel angry. The ones that never practiced meditation showed increased heart rate and blood pressure, as well as accelerated breathing rate. The experienced practitioners showed a much lower physiological reaction.
After meditating for a 20-minute session, the subjects that have never meditated also showed a much lower response.
Another experiment from 2016 published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience had one group of participants listen to a guided meditation while the other listened to a presentation on language learning. Afterwards, they were shown emotionally distressing photos while their brain activity was being observed. Researchers found that the subjects who listened to guided meditation recovered much faster from the emotional impact the photos had, which would suggest that even short sessions of meditation could potentially help people manage negative emotions.
Stress appears to have become an integral part of daily life in the modern world. Unfortunately, chronic stress is associated with many adverse health effects such as gastrointestinal issues, insomnia, cardiovascular disease, changes in sex drive, fatigue, obesity and diabetes.
A study published in 2018 in the journal Psychiatry Research showed that patients suffering from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) that had gone through a course of mindfulness-based stress management (where they learned specific strategies to help them cope with stress) displayed reduced hormonal and inflammatory reactions to stress.
Another study that highlighted the mental health benefits of short meditations sessions published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology in 2014 had one group of participants go through just three consecutive days of mindfulness meditation sessions lasting 25 minutes each. The other group learned how to analyze poetry in order to improve their critical thinking skills.
Afterwards, they were asked to complete stressful speech and math tests in front of evaluators that were displaying stern faces. The subjects in the mindfulness meditation group reported feeling less stressed than the ones that studied poetry.