Written by Tracy Mulholland
It has been practiced for centuries, hailed by those who regularly engage in it as a method to attain relaxation, increased focus, and inner peace. It is known in Hindu and Buddhist cultures as dhyana. Translated from the classical Indian language of Sanskrit, dhyana means meditation.
Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years. However, it only recently gained popularity in westernized culture (due in large part to the 1960’s and 70’s). It has traditionally been practiced as a path to nirvana, or enlightenment. It requires turning inward and practicing deep relaxation, allowing for better processing of emotions. Knowing the effects of the practice, the Dalai Lama has said, “If every eight year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.”
So…Is sitting silently on the floor in deep concentration really that powerful of an exercise?
There are many forms of meditation, ranging from mindfulness meditation (or “Vipassana”) that focuses on the breath, to transcendental meditation (TM), in which a mantra (sacred word or phrase) is repeated. Despite differences in method, the goal is the same- to clear the mind of clutter. But meditation is proving to be more than a mechanism for inner peace. Current research is finding that it may have physiological and neurological benefits that can be used to treat anxiety, depression, stress, high blood pressure and even thwart age-related brain atrophy.
Jevning et al. studied the effect of transcendental meditation on cerebral blood flow (CBF). In their study subjects, they noted acute physiological changes such as reduced O2 consumption and CO2 elimination, as well as increased activity in brain regions corresponding to wakefulness. These changes brought on by TM have been described as a “wakeful hypometabolic state,” thought to be caused by an increase in parasympathetic (i.e. rest and digest) activity and changes in blood flow (i.e. decreased blood flow to the liver, kidney and muscles and increased blood flow to the brain). The researchers measured CBF of 34 total study participants (18 of which were long-term TM practitioners) by placing electrodes on the scalp and measuring cerebral electrical impedance caused by the pulse of the blood. They saw significant increases in CBF in the frontal and occipital regions during TM, implying increased cerebral activity.
In addition to increasing brain activity, meditation may provide alternative treatment for those suffering from psychiatric disorders. Harrison et al. studied the effects of meditation on children with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). Symptoms of ADHD include impulsivity and decreased attention span, as well as a reduction in the function of fronto-parietal networks (FPN). The FPN is involved in a wide range of tasks, including managing cognitive control abilities. Previous research using neuroimaging techniques saw an increase in the activation of fronto-parietal attention networks during mediation.
Study participants included both children and parents. They practiced Sahaja Yoga Meditation (a practice based on self-realization) in clinical sessions twice weekly and at home regularly. After the six week study period, 26 of the 48 children showed significant reduction in the symptoms associated with ADHD and nearly half reduced or stopped their medication. While the authors note further long-term research should be conducted, their results seem promising.
Even if you are not experiencing symptoms of a physiological or psychological disorder, there may be an important reason to engage in the practice. Practicing meditation seems to mitigate age-related brain atrophy. By the time we hit our mid-twenties (hence my reason for writing this), our brains begin to decrease in volume and size. Luders et al. recently studied the potential effects of meditation on preserving grey matter - the brain regions that contain neuronal cell bodies. It is where most of the information processing occurs.
According to the authors, meditation seemed like a promising approach to enhance brain heath due to its “beneficial effects on a number of cognitive domains, including attention, memory, verbal fluency, executive function, processing speed, overall cognitive flexibility as well as conflict monitoring and even creativity.”
The study included 50 meditators (with experience ranging from 4 to 46 years) and 50 control subjects, closely matched on age and sex. Researchers scanned the brains of all study participants using high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging. They looked at both local and global grey matter.
They noticed a decline in grey matter with age across all study participants, however those who practiced meditation had significantly less tissue atrophy, both locally and globally. This is shown by the relative steepness in slopes from both control and meditator groups.
Their results, though profound, call for further studies. The authors are unsure whether the patterns observed in meditators are due to the gain or preservation of grey matter; The former involving increased dendritic branching or synaptogensis (formation of synapses between neurons) and the latter involving a reduction in stress-related responses such as immune response gene expression and pro-inflammatory processes.
While more studies on the long-term effects of meditation on the brain are needed, those who practice it are already convinced of its many benefits. This includes one of America’s favorite comedians, Jerry Seinfeld, a huge proponent of transcendental meditation. He, along with the executive of the David Lynch Foundation, have been introducing the practice to school children and military veterans to help them deal with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Although it is often associated with the practice of yoga, meditation does not require steep monthly memberships or incredible flexibility. It can be performed nearly anywhere, cost-free. Here are a few links to guided videos to get you started:
Harrison, L., R. Manosh, and K. Rubia. 2004. Sahaja Yoga Meditation as a family treatment program for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder children. Journal of Clinical Psychology and Psychiatry 9:479–497.
Jevning, R., R.K. Wallace, and M. Beidebach. 1992. The physiology of meditation: A review. A wakeful hypo metabolic integrated response. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 16:415-424
Jevning, R., R. Anand, M. Biedebach and G. Fernando. 1996. Effects on regional cerebral blood flow of transcendental meditation. Physiology & Behavior 59:399-402.
Luders, E., N. Cherbuin, and F. Kurth. 2015. Forever Young(er): potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation on gray matter atrophy. Frontiers in Psychology. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01551
Rubia, K. 2009. The neurobiology of meditation and its clinical effectiveness in psychiatric disorders Biological Psychology 82:1–11
Zando, T.P., and A. Gazzaley. 2013. Fronto-parietal network: flexible hub of cognitive control. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 17:602-603
University of California - Los Angeles. "Forever young: Meditation might slow the age-related loss of gray matter in the brain." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 February 2015.
An Overview of Meditation: Its Origins and Traditions by Robert Puff Ph.D. Posted Jul 07, 2013 in Meditation for Modern Life
The History of Meditation by Melissa Eisler <http://www.chopra.com/ccl/the-history-of-meditation>
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