At face value it looks as if a meditating person isn’t doing very much as they sit serenely with their eyes closed. It’s a practice I have done for a while and have always felt was good for me, but in the past I have found it hard to justify to others. That changed recently when I saw a documentary about the mind-body-health connection, and I was surprised to learn how far science has come, how much deeper understanding researchers have of meditation and how much is actually going on in the brain. It started me on a path to look deeper into the latest research.
Sara Lazar from Harvard is at the forefront of meditation research. In 2005 she looked at the brains of seasoned meditators who on average had meditated once a day for 40 minutes for about eight years. She found that the experienced mediators had thicker brain regions in areas important for sensory, cognitive and emotional processing than people who were didn’t meditate. She also found that the more experienced the meditator, the thicker the brain regions were. In other words, her research suggests that meditation is like going to the gym. The more often you go, the stronger, fitter and younger your brain is.
Five years later Lazar wanted to know if the fit, youthful brains of the long-term meditators were caused by all the meditation they had done or because people with those kind of brains just happened to like meditating. So Lazar and her team took a group of people who had never meditated and put them through an eight-week course. The results were astonishing. They showed that a region of the brain, which is known to play a key role in stress, had shrunk after just eight weeks. The people who did the course also reported feeling less stressed and experiencing greater feelings of peace.
The program that Lazar’s team taught the meditating novices was called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction or MBSR and it was developed in the late 1970s by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist who had studied under Nobel Laureate Salvador Luria. Kabat-Zinn was also an enthusiastic meditator and wanted to know if he could help people with chronic illness by teaching them to be still. One of his ground breaking early studies showed that meditation in conjunction with conventional medical light therapy treatment could help people with the skin condition psoriasis heal faster.
What’s most interesting about Lazar’s beginner mediators is that nothing in their lives had changed other than their meditation practice. They still had their work stressors and usual complications of everyday living. The only thing that was different was their regular mediation practice. This new research shows that something as simple and inexpensive as sitting still and focusing our attention can make profound changes in our brain and lives.
What started as small, tentative footsteps towards evidence-based mind body medicine a few decades ago has now become a movement with thanks to new technology and research being done around the world. We now know that all different types of meditation practices can enhance your immune system, it can help you cope with chronic illness, and it can change your brain structure to help with anxiety, focus and attention.