The Science Behind Meditation

We live in an age of paradox. Our refrigerators are full of food but our bodies are starved of nutrition. We have a wealth of information but a poverty of attention. We have 24/7 social media to connect with but we feel more alone than we have ever felt before. We have sleep apps to measure the quality of our sleep but no sound sleep to relax our tired body and mind. We are witnessing acme of success but are not sure if we can survive this success.

Woes of Modern Living – Stress, Anxiety, and Depression 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that by 2020, worldwide, depression and anxiety will be the number one disability. Already we have more than 300 million people who are affected by depression. Suicide has emerged as the second leading cause of death in the 15-29 age group. We cannot continue to live like this. We need to take action in our own lives to create a physically and emotionally healthy and secure world. We can all start to mend our own life by taking responsibility for our actions. One of the problems we face that we get completely caught up in the whirlpool of doing that we forget to be. Meditation is one such art that can help us to be in the present moment with full attention without getting overwhelmed by imaginary fears and threats. Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson in The Science of Meditation have provided scientific evidence for the salutary effect of meditation on stress, attention, quieting the constant chatter of the brain, empathy, and perception of pain.

Managing stress 

Any form of meditation, breath, present moment awareness or concentration on mantra or idol, helps to still the mind. Life brings angst -money worries, work-related issues, family problem, health troubles. Our body is not designed to face a constant onslaught of stress situation. In nature, stress episodes like encountering a predator are temporary giving the body time to recover. In modern life, stressors are mostly psychological and stay for a long time even though they trigger the same ancient biological reactions of the release of adrenaline and stress hormones. This constant state of fight or flight plays havoc with our body and mind. The amygdala, the brains radar for the threat that triggers freeze, fight or flight response shows dampened activity from the regular practice of mindful breath meditation.  A persistent long-term practice is shown to be associated with greater functional connectivity between the prefrontal areas that manage emotion and the areas of the amygdala that react to stress, resulting in less reactivity to stress.

Strengthen attention and awareness 

Given the ubiquity of the internet, smartphones, and social media, people today take in far more information than ever before. While the uptake of information has increased, our ability to absorb that information has considerably reduced. We live in an age of attention deficit where it is difficult to hold attention on a single task even for a short period of time. Multitasking has become a new buzzword. Little do the people know that there is nothing like multitasking. It is a myth. Our attention does not do parallel processing. An authoritative research at Stanford University has shown that what we think as multitasking is nothing but a quick jump in succession from one task to another. In the long run, multitasking wears out our ability to focus and reduces productivity.

Meditation, on the other hand, helps to build attention. It strengthens our cognitive control mechanism that in turn helps us to maintain focus on a specific task while resisting distractions. Just a few minutes of mindful meditation can help us to focus better on an immediate task. Long-term meditation practices like Vipassana reduce attention blinks – the habit of the brain to go offline. Lack of attention blinks helps to observe minute changes in our surrounding. Ongoing practice can make attention an integral part of being.

Quiet the constant chatter of mind with meditation

It is surprising to note that our brain is more active when we are doing nothing at all. The default mode of the brain is active during the time when we are idle and are not engaged in any challenging or cognitive task. It uses such time to dwell on the sense of self and build stories around life events. Its dominant tendency is to mull over negative thoughts and feelings. This constant chattering of the brain not only consumes energy but also creates tragic fiction for us to wallow in.

The swathe of area mainly the midline of the prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the postcingulate (PCC) is circuitry of default mode that shows maximum activity when nothing is going on. This chatter of the brain becomes less when we are engaged in some cognitive task. Meditation helps to quiet this constant chatter of our brains. All meditation techniques guide us to be attentive to the wandering mind and to bring it back to the object of attention like breath. These meditative techniques when practiced for a long-term help to build executive control of the prefrontal cortex on the default circuitry thereby quieting our monkey mind. The seeker realizes that thoughts, feelings, and impulses are ever changing mental events. By just observing them we can reduce their power over us.

Reduce pain, rewire brain and change your gene expression through meditation

Many studies have shown the salutary effect of meditation on our perception of pain. Meditation can reduce the emotional component of suffering from diseases. Mindfulness training, even as short as three days, produces a short-term decrease in pro-inflammatory cytokines, the molecules responsible for inflammation. Long-term practices further lower the levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Not only meditation helps to regulate the cytokines it also helps in switching off the genes responsible for inflammation. Constant practice of meditation slows the cellular aging by increasing the production of enzyme telomerase that helps telomeres to remain in good shape for a long time. Apart from bodily changes, meditation helps to rewire our brain and helps us to relax in every situation that life may pose.

Though, meditation is a tool designed to realize the higher state of consciousness, the science behind meditation prove the ancillary benefits on our health and well-being. We all need to make it a part of our daily routine to lead a fulfilling and joyful life.