April 25, 2021

The Day You Started Meditating - A Breakdown of the Science

You're probably vaguely aware that meditation is meant to be good for you. Maybe a summary of the scientific evidence will give you enough of a kick up the backside to get started yourself (yup, sometimes you even need a kick to sit still).  But if you want to really commit, you'll probably have to read this and then find your own reasons.

Introduction

Meditation used to be something that was seen to be practiced by monks or hippies, but in recent times, it has very much moved into the mainstream. There are now more meditation apps than I care to name, and more and more people posting about mindfulness in their Twitter and Instagram bios (guilty of this myself).

However, I think meditation and mindfulness (the difference between these two concepts is explained here) now occupies a similar space in people minds to, say, going to the gym six times a week. Most people think they should do it, they just don't. Who has the time! Hopefully this round-up of the scientific evidence will convince you enough to actually start exploring, or to give it another go.

The Science

Mindfulness Engages the parts of the brain that are related to happiness

When you are feeling particularly happy or optimistic, it's likely that the front-left side of your brain is engaged. Whereas the front-right part of your brain deals with negative emotions. A study from the University of Wisconsin found that after eight weeks of mindfulness practice, brain activity had shifted in participants more from the right to the left, and participants reported increased feelings of happiness and wellbeing to match this shift.

In 2005, Sara Lazar of Harvard University found that subjects who practiced insight meditation had measurably thicker tissue in the left pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for emotional processing and well-being. And the subjects in this study were normal working people in Boston, who meditated for around 40 minutes a day.

It could even slow down ageing of the brain

In Sara Lazar's study, the researchers also plotted results vs age. They found that the 50 year old meditators had the same amount of cortex as the 25 year olds. This evidence suggests that meditation could actually slow down age-related decline in the brain.

... And it Benefits your brain more generally

In 2009, a UCLA study led by Eileen Luders found that brains of experienced meditators contained more gray matter (the tissue responsible for information processing) than the brains of a control group of non-meditators.

Meditation Relaxes You

The amygdala is the part of the brain that triggers your body's response to stress. A 2012 study found that, after eight weeks of mindfulness training,  amygdala activation decreased when participants were shown positive, neutral and negative images.

Meditation triggers a "relaxation response", where blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate all decrease. This relaxation can help counter the stresses and strains of daily life.

Meditation affects your ability to have compassion for others

In 2013, researchers at Northeastern University and Harvard Medical School found that after wight weeks of meditation practice, participants were more likely to make decisions that showed compassion.

Participants were called to the lab under the pretence of taking tests and told to sit in the waiting room. There were 3 seats in the waiting room, 2 were filled by actors, and the third seat was saved for the participant. After they sat down, another actor came in wearing crutches. Participants in the meditation group were 5x more likely to offer their seat than those in the control group.

Mindfulness Training Improves Attention

In 2019, a study run by the Centre for Healthy Minds tested the effects of mindfulness training on the connection between two networks in the brain that are essential for attention and focus. After eight weeks, it was found that the group that had received mindfulness training had stronger connections between the two brain networks in question. This result held steady when participants were tested again, six months after the initial study had been completed.

An older, 2007 study from the University of Pennsylvania trained a group of non-meditators in mindfulness. After eight weeks, the new meditators were able to sustain attention on one thing for longer.

.. And also Benefits your Immune System

Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre gave subjects eight weeks of mindfulness training, and compared them with a control group who got no training. Both groups were given flu shots and their antibody activity was tested. The meditators showed a decrease in negative emotions, an increase in positive ones, and possibly because of this, their immune systems produced more antibodies in response to the vaccine, compared to the control group.

How can sitting and watching my breath lead to these huge changes?

Neuro-plasticity is a big word, but all it means is that your brain can change throughout life. The neurons change how they communicate with each other, with experience. So whenever you engage in a behaviour over and over again, it leads to changes in the brain.

Richard Davidson, a world expert in neuro-plasticity, mentions that "Emotions - and happiness in particular - should be thought of in the same way as a motor skill. They can be trained".

My Own Experience

This is the evidence, but when you're meditating yourself you don't (usually) have the luxury taking CT scan's of your brain and comparing the before and after. You might be wondering if you're "doing it right", or if you've given it enough time. Here are some things I've noticed from my own practice:

Catching Myself

I'm definitely someone who has been guilty of spending too much time daydreaming about an imaginary (but amazing) future, or reminiscing about the past. I still do that. But exposure to meditation and mindfulness has meant that occasionally, I catch myself, while going about my daily life, and remind myself to focus on and enjoy what's going on around me right now, instead of living life on autopilot.

Time Moves Slowly

A few years ago, I decided I would try a completely new sport - something outside my comfort zone. I went for boxing. Yes, I realise the irony of me talking about punching people in the head, in a blog post about meditation.

When you step in the ring for the first time, the first thing you realise is how long a three-minute round feels. Those three minute rounds were so tough physically that they felt like they lasted hours.

Meditating is as hard for me mentally as boxing was physically. It's hard to sit still and do nothing, even for ten minutes. Because of that, the time I spend meditating seems to be the only time in my day where time moves slowly, and I've begun to really appreciate that. When I'm at work, ten minutes can slip away in the blink of an eye. Through a meeting overrunning, or an unexpected email, or procrastination through a random YouTube video. Meditation allows me to appreciate the value of ten minutes.  

You have to find your own reasons

Yes, there are some proven benefits to meditation. But to care enough to take time out of every day, you need to find a reason that will personally motivate you . It can be the effect meditation might have on your relationships, or others around you, or the effect that an improved attention span would have on your career. Whatever the reason is, you need to find your one thats important enough to you, so you are motivated enough to keep at it.

And if you're wondering how to get started, look no further - some of my favourite meditations for beginners are here, here and here.