For thousands of years people have practiced meditation for spiritual, emotional, and physical well being. But from a scientific perspective, how exactly does meditating affect your body? Does it really do anything?
It all starts in the brain! During meditation, brain-scans see increased activity in regions directly correlated with decreased anxiety and depression, along with increased pain tolerance. The Default Mode Network, in particular, is activated when one’s mind is at rest and not focusing on the outside world, and has been found to improve memory, self awareness and goal setting. Want to be more caring to your friends and family? When scientists compared the brains of Buddhist monks to new meditators, they found the region of the brain associated with empathy to be much more pronounced in the monks. It also literally changes your brain waves – and we can measure these frequencies. Meditators have higher levels of Alpha waves, which have been shown to reduce feelings of negative mood, tension, sadness and anger.
And if that wasn’t enough, it also physically changes our brain shape and size. Studies found that after 8 weeks of a meditation program, gray matter was more dense in areas associated with learning, memory processing, and emotion regulation. And yet the amygdala, which deals with stress, blood pressure and fear, had decreased gray matter! When we look at the entire body, not only do we see decreased blood pressure, but it can also increase the variability of your heart rate. While this may sound harmful, it actually plays a critical role in properly transporting Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide throughout your body. Think your getting sick? In a study where both meditators and non-mediators were given the flu virus, meditators were able to produce a greater number of antibodies and had increased immune function. If we go a little deeper, we can even see changes on a cellular level.
Your chromosomes have protective protein complexes called telomeres, which help reduce damage to your DNA and lower cell death. And a shortened telomere length has been linked to several disease such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer. Amazingly, when cancer survivors completed a meditation program, their bodies showed significant increases in telomere length. It’s believed that psychological intervention, particularly decreasing stress, has a direct effect on the enzyme telomerase, which has been shown to counteract shortening by adding DNA to the shrinking telomeres. Of course, meditation is not a substitute for other medical advice or a healthy lifestyle – we don’t want you leaving this video thinking it will cure cancer.
But much like hitting the gym can grow your muscles and increase your overall health, it seems that meditation may be a way of ‘working out’ your brain with extra health benefits. And since your brain controls, well…all of you, why not relax and say ‘om’ every once in a while.
What are the benefits of meditation?
Gaining a new perspective on stressful situations. Building skills to manage your stress. Increasing self-awareness. Focusing on the present. Reducing negative emotions. Increasing imagination and creativity. Increasing patience and tolerance.
Can meditation be dangerous?
The study does make an important point, however, at a time when mindfulness and meditation has become more popular, that the effects of meditation are not always positive or harmless. Some people in the study reported feeling depressed or suicidal, and a few needed treatment in hospital as a result.