Meditation is widely promoted as a way to reduce stress and heighten awareness.
But a recent essay in The New York Times questioned some of the claims made for meditation, and cited other ways to achieve some of its key benefits.
We'll take a look at that critique ... and examine recent evidence that meditation can bulk up your brain in beneficial ways.
What is mindfulness meditation?
Meditation has been practiced by followers of every major religion, for thousands of years.
It's is an essential part of traditional yoga practice, whose physical postures were designed to prepare the body for lengthy meditation.
Today, meditation is more often practiced to reduce stress, relax mind and body, and heighten awareness of your surroundings and state of mind.
Many traditional and modern meditation practices employ the method called mindfulness, in which meditators ignore their thoughts and focus attention on their breath.
Meditation "pushers" get some push-back
At the time of a 2006-2007 National Institutes of Health survey, more than 20 million adult Americans reported practicing or trying meditation … a two percent increase from 2002.
Psychology professor Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania acknowledged the evidence that meditation brings real benefits ... but he finds some of its fans a bit too fervent.
He cited evidence challenging the strength of its supposed benefits, and the idea that meditation is the only way to achieve some important ones.
As he wrote, "Meditation isn't snake oil. For some people, meditation might be the most efficient way to reduce stress and cultivate mindfulness. But it isn't a panacea.”
In his op-ed essay, professor Grant cited evidence showing that other things can reduce stress and/or its harmful effects: exercise, ample high-quality sleep ... and simply changing the way you think about stress.
Dr. Grant referred his readers to a Stanford University study showing that "reframing” stress as healthy and useful relaxed the participants and eased their physiological responses to stress.
And he noted an eight-year study, which found that people who reported experiencing more stress than average were more likely to die early … but only if they believed that stress was harmful.
Major evidence review yields equivocal results
Dr. Grant also pointed to a recent evidence review from the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
The authors reviewed 47 clinical trials involving 3,515 participants – using rigorous Cochrane Collaboration methodologies – and came to mixed conclusions about mindful-meditation programs (Goyal M et al. 2015):
- Moderate evidence of improved anxiety, depression, and pain
- Low evidence of improved stress/distress and quality of mental life
- No evidence that meditation is better than drug, exercise, or behavioral therapies
- Insufficient evidence of any effect on positive mood, attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep, or weight
So Dr. Grant's reservations seem reasonable ... but there's little doubt that meditation produces significant, if not entirely unique benefits.
For example, the results of two Stanford University clinical trials suggest that meditation reduces social anxiety more than aerobic exercise does (Goldin P et al. 2012 and 2013).
And growing evidence shows that meditation produces changes in the brain … ones whose effects may not occur or manifest within the short time periods of most clinical studies.
Meditation may change your mind ... literally
Studies examining the effects of meditation on brain structures date back about a decade.
And the results have been encouraging.
As Chinese researchers wrote last year, "Previous studies have demonstrated that meditation practice can improve individuals' mindfulness through modifying functions and structures of multiple brain regions …” (Lu H et al. 2014).
Neuroscientist Sara Lazar of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School led pioneering brain-scan studies that produced intriguing results ... and prompted similar research.
After personal experience with yoga as a treatment for a sports injury, she became interested in understanding more about why yoga made her feel calmer and more empathetic.
Personal curiosity led to professional inquiry, and she began a series of studies combining meditation and brain imaging.
Dr. Lazar's group studied long-term meditators in comparison with a control group with no meditation experience.
In a landmark 2005 study, MRI brain scans by Dr. Lazar's team showed that the long-term meditators had more gray matter (cortical thickness) in the auditory and sensory cortex of the brain (Lazar SW et al. 2005).
Dr. Lazar speculated that mindful meditation – with its focus on the breath and the present moment – leads to enhancement of the sensory areas of the brain.
She and her peers also found that the meditators had more gray matter in the frontal cortex, which plays a key role in decision-making and working memory.
Perhaps most importantly, they found that meditation may slow down the natural, age-related thinning of the frontal cortex.
Those findings have since been confirmed by other researchers, who agree that these changes may reduce and delay brain shrinkage … a key sign of brain aging (Luders E et al. 2011; Kang DH et al. 2013).
Meditation may grow – and shrink – the brain in beneficial ways
Encouraged by her initial findings, Dr. Lazar set out to test the effects of meditation on the brain structures of new practitioners.
Her team compared the gray matter in two groups (Hölzel BK et al. 2011):
- People participating in a stress-reducing mindful meditation program
The meditating group took a weekly class, then were sent home with a recording to practice on their own, for an average of just under 30 minutes each day.
After eight weeks, Dr. Lazar's team detected five significant brain changes in the meditators.
First, they found thickening (more gray matter) in four regions:
- Pons, where many neurotransmitters are produced.
- Posterior cingulate, which plays a role in your mind wandering
- Hippocampus, which supports memory, emotions and learning
- Temporo parietal junction (TPJ), which is involved with empathy and compassion
Second, Lazar's team found that the amygdala – a key brain region for anxiety, fear and stress responses – shrank in the meditation group.
Dr. Lazar believes that regular mindful meditation may create lasting changes in brain structure … ones that can improve mood, thinking, and memory.
How to get started
Many organizations offer classes in meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction … and there are may instructional DVDs and books.
But it's about as simple as sitting quietly in a comfortable chair – or lotus position if you're limber enough – and focusing on your breathing for 20 minutes.
Although meditation comes in many forms – with a rich literature surrounding each tradition – the basic technique is extremely simple.
So if you want to try meditation, it couldn't be easier to get started.
Your brain may thank you!
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