Scientific evidence supporting the benefits of meditation

Benefits of Meditation Helen Barry

Benefits of Meditation Helen Barry

Did you know that meditation can physically impact your health and wellbeing? This can lead to many scientifically proven benefits that focus on the physical changes to the human brain.

Meditation has long been considered a personal, spiritual journey.  In recent years, academic studies of meditation have begun to investigate and validate the benefits, physiological and otherwise, of meditation.

Medical diagnostic tools can demonstrate the changes in the brain; this blog post will review the main techniques of MRI, EEG and PET scans.

I’ll outline some of the studies and research that identify different types of brainwaves and show just how meditation can alter and change the frequency at which they operate.

Meditation has benefits to health and well-being and the scientific evidence.

In the last few years, the number of academic research papers published on the science of meditation has increased by nearly 300%. This research has shown how the brain can evolve and change physically through consistent daily meditation practice.

These changes are known as neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the brain to change its structure. The benefits of regular meditation include the brain being brought into balance, regulating emotion, and improving the body’s ability to heal. Other benefits include reducing blood pressure, stress, anxiety, and depression while increasing our emotional intelligence, productivity, creativity, and concentration. 

Jon Kabat-Zinn has developed two programmes, MBSR and MBCT. His studies have found a link between the benefits of these programmes on the brain and how they can help with pain, both physical and emotional, and other associated changes.

Another of these studies carried out by Sara Lazar and her team at Harvard found that MBSR increased cortical thickness in the hippocampus, the learning and memory part of the brain, appears to grow where the cells of the amygdala, the fear, anxiety and stress part of the brain appears to decrease.

An interesting study from the University of California details how grey matter increases and telomers lengthen with meditation, helping to slow the effects of ageing on the brain.

The techniques used to demonstrate the physiological changes in the brain.

Physiological changes in the brain are visible using technology such as MRI scans, EEG tests and PET Scans.

As part of Lazar’s study, MRI machines took images of participants before meditating.  After eight weeks of mindfulness meditation, MRI scans showed changes within the brain structure, specifically the amygdala, as a direct result of meditation.

EEG tests detect electrical activity in the brain using electrodes attached to the scalp, thus validating the effectiveness of mindfulness as a stress-reduction tool.

PET scans use a radioactive tracer to show how organs function and detect changes at a cellular level.

How the brain waves are altered in a meditative state

The brain consists of billions of cells, some called Neurons.  Neurons communicate and emit electrical activity brain waves, which can be detected using an EEG machine.

The wave’s shape differs when the brain is at rest or when the brain is focussed. 

There are five types of brain waves, GAMMA, BETA, ALPHA, THETA and DELTA.

  • From 35+ Hz, GAMMA brain waves are active; the brain typically absorbs information at this frequency, which is when the brain wakes up.
  • BETA brain waves are active between 13 – 35 Hz; the brain is fully awake and thinking, in a state of alertness primarily used for creativity and intuition.
  • ALPHA is a lower frequency brain wave between 8 – 13 Hz; the brain is relaxed and activated by closing the eyes.
  • THETA frequency measured at 4 – 8 Hz; this is present when dreaming or in a deepened meditative state.
  • DELTA is the lowest state at 0.5 – 4 Hz; this is present when deep sleep is activated.

The brain develops and connects through neural connections; the cells in the brain process information and connect to make neural pathways.  These pathways are responsible for thoughts, feelings and actions and play a role in how successful the brain is at managing stress, focussing on tasks and getting a good night’s sleep.  Lazar’s study proves that meditation can control the brain more effectively for better health, greater clarity and a more positive life experience.

During meditation, when eyes are closed, the Alpha brain wave is activated, moving into Theta results in a deep meditative state.  The lower the frequency of the brainwaves, the more relaxed the feeling.

There are many physiological benefits associated with meditation

There are many physiological benefits associated with meditation.  Studies show that regular meditation practice will reduce stress, anxiety and depression. 

Meditation can improve cognitive skills, aid improvement in sleep quality and has a significant and positive effect on heart health.  It can improve the body’s ability to heal and fight infection and be an effective tool to manage pain.

Meditation helps to focus the mind when concentrating on breath or mantra.  Regular practice activates the frontal cortex, increasing blood flow to this region, resulting in the growth of grey matter, helping to improve focus, concentration and attention.

Conclusion

In conclusion, there has been increased interest from the academic and medical fields in the benefits of meditation, with the number of academic papers published over the past five years increasing exponentially.

Medical technology, such as MRI, EEG and PET scans, are being used to validate the findings of these studies, which enhances the medical, physiological and psychological benefits of meditation.

EEG technology enables medical professionals to watch in real-time as brain waves alter and change with meditation.  As the brain and body physically and mentally relax, the brain wave frequency reduces while in a deep meditative state.

Regular meditation heals the body and the mind, physically and psychologically, bringing balance to the brain and healing to the body.

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