Meditation – What Does Science Say About It?
Although meditation has been practised for centuries in Eastern parts of the world, it’s only recently that it gained momentum in the West. And as the interest in it has spiked, so have the claims about its countless benefits. Many practitioners will tell you how meditation does more than help you relax – it clears your mind, relieves stress, and helps alleviate several physical and mental health conditions. But how factual are these claims? Is there any scientific evidence that helps to prove or even disprove them? Yes, in a certain way. Studying meditation isn’t an exact science, so there are only evidence-based speculations. One thing is clear – meditation can certainly help; the question is only to what degree.
Defining MeditationDefining meditation can be a challenging task, as different people have different perceptions of it. Some people see meditation as an exercise that clears their minds and helps them achieve a greater state of consciousness. Others see it as a practice that helps dispel negative thoughts and anxieties. Others still see it as part of their religious practices. What makes defining meditation even more difficult is the fact that there are many different kinds of it. We have the ever more popular mindfulness meditation, the renowned transcendental meditation, the gentle loving-kindness meditation, and more. Some types of meditation require you to stay still, focus on your breathing, and forget about the world around you. Others are almost like exercise – you can practice movement meditation through yoga, gardening, or even a walk through the woods, for example. What unites all of these different techniques and meditation practices is the end goal. When you meditate, you achieve a better balance and harmony within yourself and your surroundings. Naturally, this is easier said than done. It takes great patience and a lot of self-reflection to master the art of meditation. It’s not just about sitting down, closing your eyes, and breathing for hours on end. You need to learn to listen to your body and mind. You need to devote yourself to thorough introspection, you need to work on your self-awareness, and you need to have an open mind.
How Meditation Affects the BrainMeditation is primarily about helping you achieve greater inner peace. It should help you destress, eliminate negative thoughts and feelings, and focus on the positives. However, it’s suggested that meditation can have both a psychological and a physiological impact on the brain. Studies have shown that long-time meditators have a larger volume and a greater gray matter concentration in the right hippocampus than non-meditators. Gray matter contains most neuronal cell bodies, and it’s essential for muscle control, emotions, hearing, seeing, speaking, and more. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to learn, make memories, perform complex cognitive tasks. We wouldn’t be able to do almost anything. As we age, gray matter concentrations in the brain naturally decrease. It’s suggested that practising meditation can be beneficial for reducing age-related brain degeneration and promoting better neuroplasticity.
Benefits of MeditationSo far, meditation has proven to bring many benefits to your body and mind. Primarily, it can be an excellent practice for stress relief. Studies have shown that meditation can alleviate psychological stress and promote better overall wellbeing. When you’re feeling stressed, your body increases cortisol production – the so-called “stress hormone.” High levels of cortisol can cause the release of cytokines, which promote inflammatory responses. They can increase your heart rate and blood pressure, cause anxiety and depression, and more. As meditation helps alleviate stress, it preserves your overall well-being and promotes better mental and physical health. By helping to promote greater grey matter concentration in the brain, meditation can also assist in memory retention. It can enhance your learning and improve your executive functioning. These are just some of the many benefits of meditation.
It Can Help With These ConditionsBesides helping to improve cognitive functions and processes, it’s suggested that meditation can also help treat a variety of mental and physical health conditions. Studies have provided evidence that meditation can alleviate or at least help manage the symptoms of:
- Irritable bowel disorder
- Insomnia and other sleep disorders
- Chronic pain