It seems everyone from Michael Jordan to Ariana Huffington is championing meditation. A practice thousands of years old, meditation is now lauded by the 1% to increase intelligence, enrich our experience of life, reduce stress and expand feelings of love. Career-minded folks are also using meditation for success in getting a promotion through increased creativity, focus, emotional balance, optimism and self-discipline. And as a booster to our experience of life, meditation also helps with healthy sleep patterns and even increased pain tolerance.
But how far has science been able to cover what people have experienced for millennia? What, so far, are the key science-based benefits of meditation? Here are our favorite five:
- Reduces Stress: Stress reduction is one of the top reasons for people to turn to meditation. Mental and physical stress promote increased levels of the hormone cortisol, which is accompanied by harmful side effects, such as inflammation-promoting agents called cytokines. As a result, chronic stress disrupts sleep, increases blood pressure and keeps us fatigued. Counterproductive to work, we also have cloudy and unfocused thought. And worse still, it’s usually accompanied by depression and not wanting to form deeper or meaningful relationships. After reviewing nearly 19,000 citations, one study showed that it improved anxiety, depression and pain over an 8 week study. Another, also over 8 weeks, cited reduced inflammation response caused by stress. And another study showed effects were strongest in individuals with the highest levels of stress or anxiety, with substantial effects in the first 2 weeks and sustained effects at 3 years.
- Promotes Emotional Balance: Meditation can also lead to self-compassion, authentic confidence and optimism. 18 studies showed mindfulness meditation, including adults with major depressive episodes, saw profound reductions in depressive disorders. Cytokines, inflammatory chemicals released with stress, can lead to mood swings. A review of several studies suggests meditation may also prevent the relapse of depression by reducing these inflammatory chemicals. And finally, another controlled study comparing the brains of meditators reported significant activation in the brain regions, related to optimism, the left-side anterior. These findings suggest that meditation may change the brain and immune function in positive ways. Currently, the science on whether or not meditation is superior to drugs and other behavioral therapies is inconclusive. But at least there are no adverse side-effects from breathing.
- Creative Problem Solving: Two experiments examined the relation between mindfulness practices and cognitive plasticity. The authors concluded that mindfulness meditation reduced cognitive rigidity by the tendency to be “blinded” by habits of past experience and being able to see things with a beginner’s mind.
- Lengthens Attention Span: Meditation hones your attention muscles and increases the endurance of your focus. A study looking at the effects of an 8-week mindfulness meditation course and that of a 1-month retreat saw that participants saw demonstrated enhanced performance on the ability to re-orient their attention and maintain it. A similar study showed workers who practiced mindfulness meditation regularly could stay focused on a task for longer and also remember the details better of the task. One review concluded that meditation also addresses abnormalities in the brain’s default mode network, which is responsible for chronic worrying, mind-wandering about the past and future, and poor attention. Several studies show that meditation can reverse some of these abnormal neuron network activity, which could lead to depression, anxiety and attention deficit.
- Improves Memory: In a rapidly aging society, it’s increasingly important to address age-related decline in cognitive function. 12 studies show that meditation can offset decline and even enhance cognitive function in adults. Studies involved a wide variety of meditation techniques and reported preliminary positive effects on attention, memory, executive function, processing speed, and general cognition.
The bottom line is that meditation is a complex mental practice involving changes in sensory perception, cognition, hormonal and autonomic activity. No doubt because of its complexity and how new we are to researching this old tradition, a lot more research is still going into the field. While the science catches up to our positive experience from meditation, the practice is already widely implemented in psychological and medical practices for stress management as well as disorders like depression.
Meditation is something everyone can do to improve their emotional health and mental fortitude. Everyone can do it, without any special contraption required, and it’s something you can practice daily, even if it’s just a few minutes. Sounds good? It is!