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Is Meditation all that? Well, I’m glad you asked.
Meditation is the practice of using various techniques to train the mind to focus and be clear. The modern world is becoming more and more plugged-in, frenetic and multi-tasking. Meditation may well need to be the next step in our evolution.
Eastern religions and philosophies have always extolled the benefits of meditation. In the West, we have been more sceptical of the benefits of sitting still and doing “nothing”. Over the last few decades, science has been applying tools like functional MRI’s and EEG’s and rigorous research techniques, like longitudinal studies, to challenge meditation’s benefit claims.
The evidence has been consistent and impressive:
- Meditation keeps the brain young
Springer’s Journal of Cognitive Enhancement recently published one of the most extensive longitudinal studies on meditation to date. Its data spans seven years and shows how meditating holds off age-related decline, that is, it keeps our brains young.
The study began in 2011 from a population of 22 to 69-year-olds who attended a three-month meditation retreat.
The immediate findings, published after the retreat, revealed that the training enhanced the participants’ emotional well-being and led them to perform better on tasks related to focus and sustaining attention.
Seven years later, researchers checked back in with the group. All of the participants reported that they continued to meditate in some capacity. Evaluations showed that their mental improvements had withstood the test of time. These benefits were especially true for the older participants.
- Meditation keeps the brain fit and strong
It was thought that after a certain age, somewhere in the twenties, the brain stops growing and starts declining. This simplistic approach has been disproven and replaced with the concept of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to mould and form. Pathways we use a lot get stronger and bigger. Parts of the brain we don’t use, get smaller and weaker.
You can teach an old dog new tricks.
Meditation seems to harness the neuroplastic power of the brain. In a meta-analysis of 21 neuroimaging studies, no less than eight brain regions were found to be consistently altered in individuals who meditate regularly. The areas mentioned are mainly in the fronto-limbic areas of the brain. Areas which correlate with claims of improved self-awareness, clarity of thought, empathy, compassion and improved mood.
The studies included in the meta-analysis and the conclusions it makes, do have problems. For one, the sample sizes are small. For another, it’s not so easy to directly plot vague structural changes to complex behaviours like compassion.
That said, the results of therapies using meditation as a cornerstone (like mindfulness-based cognitive therapy) in treating psychiatric illnesses, like chronic depression and anxiety, are very exciting.
The reported benefits of meditation are so appealing that the world’s early adopters, companies like Google and Nike, have initiated programmes to get all their employees meditating. Early studies have raised the hope for a rational thinking workforce with high job satisfaction and emotional resilience. Certainly, whenever a company tries initiatives to address their employees needs, the employees are happier for it.
Meditation won’t help you levitate, nor is it a highway to bliss. Like learning any new skill, it takes at least some level of application to reap the full benefits. In the striving to become healthier and happier, meditation really is all that.