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Meditation is an extraordinarily ancient practice, and in recent years it has begun to be untangled from its spiritual roots to become a much more secularist pursuit. It’s been embraced by the corporate world, with Target, Google and Ford introducing meditation programs to their staff, and it’s been recognised by the NHS as having benefits for people suffering with certain mental health issues.
This mainstream acceptance has been facilitated by a huge amount of scientific study. These studies have found that the various claims that are made about meditation, from stress relief, increased ability of deal with negative emotions and better focus, have empirical backing. People who meditate have known for decades that meditation makes them feel and perform better, and now it’s becoming clear that this isn’t simply a placebo effect.
Where this is demonstrated most starkly is in a study by a group of Harvard neuroscientists, which shows that meditation physically changes your brain after only eight weeks of the practice. Before a landmark study in 1998 which showed that that the brain can produce new cells, it was generally believed that the brain is physiologically static and wouldn’t change after childhood. However, it’s now clear that neural pathways and synapses can change due to alterations in behaviour, thinking, and a host of other factors.
This is called neuroplasticity, and the discovery that meditation can influence the brain in this way gives a lot of credence to its purported benefits. Using MRI scanners, scientists took images of the study participants’ brains before and after a course of meditation and found that some areas had been strengthened, while others were reduced.
Meditation led to decreases in the brain cell volume of the amygdala, the stress centre of the brain which induces fear and anxiety, which could explain why you can combat stress with meditation. There was also an increase in grey matter in the hippocampus, and other areas of the brain (such as the cerebellum) that are involved in emotional regulation, memory and learning, and sense of self. In the past people have put meditation’s rejuvenating results down to the fact that those who meditate spend more time relaxing, but this discovery makes clear that the effect is more profound than that.
Beyond this study, scientists looking into the brain of long term meditators found that their brains were better preserved than those of non-meditators of a similar age, with more grey matter volume throughout the brain. Yale University also found that activity in the “me-centre” of the brain, where wandering thoughts can make people worry for the future or stew over past events, is decreased after meditation.
As the evidence builds we could see meditation being embraced even more widely by society. Positive, demonstrable brain changes make the benefits of meditation increasingly clear, and the practice could have a real influence in helping people lead happier and healthier lives.
This post was written by Holly Ashby, who works for Vedic meditation centre Will Williams Meditation, who aim to help become healthier and happier through the practice of meditation.