I know I promised to give more tips on meditating, but then a friend asked me, what’s the point of meditation? Why do you do it? I had to stop and think about that question for a long moment before I could answer it.
So then I started to explain that mediation feels wonderful, and it relaxes me–a bit like taking a 15 or 20-minute mini-vacation in the middle of the day. Then then I realized that wasn’t the point of my friend’s question. Or at least it wasn’t the only point. This friend’s question was more along the lines of:
What good is meditation?
Huh. It hadn’t occurred to me that people don’t understand why meditation is a Good Thing. And since this site is about the science of psychic phenomena, and since meditation is an integral part of psychic phenomena, I think it’s time I injected a little science into the proceedings.
There are many research studies on meditation, perhaps because it’s relatively easy to reproduce on demand in a more-or-less laboratory setting. So let’s just review some of them, all right?
Meditation’s effects on the brain
In 2006 B. Rael Cahn (UCSD) and John Polich (Scripps Research Institute) reviewed the then-available studies on meditation.(see reference below). They reviewed a total of 64 major studies between 1957 and 2005 which used EEGs to monitor the brain effects. They also reviewed another 20 studies which used a different technique of measurement, evoked potential or event-related potential measurements. Then they reviewed another 12 studies between 1990 and 2003 using brain imaging techniques such as PET (positron emission tomography) or fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging).
In case you’re counting, that means Cahn and Polich reviewed 96 separate peer-reviewed scientific studies.
(I told you there were a lot of studies didn’t I?)
The impact meditation has on the brain in the reviewed studies were somewhat inconsistent. Different studies used different protocols, different types of meditation (Zen, mindfulness, TM, etc.), and other variations. Despite those differences, Cahn and Polich concluded that meditation seems mostly to affect the frontal and prefrontal parts of the cortex, or the parts right behind the forehead. These areas of the brain are associated with emotion, with imagination, and with creativity.
Meditation’s psychological effects
More importantly, however, Cahn and Polich found consistent psychological impact from meditation. Let me summarize what they found in their review of nearly a hundred peer-reviewed scientific studies on meditation.
First, meditation increased attention and focus on tasks (even when not meditating!). It also reduced anxiety and stress–both huge contributors to such physical problems as heart disease.
Stressed out and anxious? Meditate!
Meditation also improved the sensitivity of perception in meditators, including greater visual sensitivity. Meditation also improved immune system function and reduced pain.
Have a chronic problem with pain from any source? Meditate!
Meditation also was shown to improve skin disorders related to stress.
Want clear skin? Meditate!
Even better, preliminary studies indicated that meditating on love and compassion actually tended to increase those feelings in meditators.
Feeling crabby toward your spouse or your boss or your kids? Meditate on compassion and love!
Meditation also was demonstrated as a “powerful mitigator of susceptibility to depression” (p. 201 of the Cahn & Polich report). This appears to be associated with perceiving negative thoughts as being simple thoughts instead of internalizing them as part of the self.
Feeling blue? Meditate!
Summing Up meditation’s effects
To sum up the scientifically demonstrated impact of meditation on the meditator:
- Meditation changes and activates parts of the brain associated with creativity, planning, and emotions.
- Meditation improves attention and focus on tasks.
- Meditation improves perception sensitivity, specifically in vision.
- Meditation improves the immune system.
- Meditation reduces pain.
- Meditation reduces stress.
- Meditation reduces anxiety.
- Meditation improves skin disorders, especially those associated with stress.
- Meditating on love and compassion increases those feelings in the meditator, thus improving their interpersonal relationships.
- Meditation is a powerful tool in fighting off depression.
Those are pretty amazing benefits, aren’t they? Yet all of them have solid scientific evidence to support the reality that meditation can achieve every one of them. And here’s the best news of all:
Meditation is free!
No prescription drugs, complicated equipment, or even any equipment is required. You don’t need to go to a doctor. There are no negative side effects. All you have to do is learn how to do it…and then meditate every day, even if only for a few minutes.
No, no one is saying that meditation necessarily cures anything. But if it makes you feel better, reduces pain, stress, and anxiety, and does all that for free…why wouldn’t you try it?
Cahn, B. R. & Polich, J. (2006). Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and
neuroimaging studies. Psychological Bulletin, vol. 132, no. 2, pp. 180-211.
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