Whenever I hear about the many benefits of meditation, my determination to find a place for it in my life is renewed once more. Unfortunately, the few and far between times I’ve attempted meditation have always ended in naptime, but I keep trying because the purported advantages, particularly increased relaxation, are just too good to pass up. And with myriad studies that explore the ways it emotionally and physically shapes our brains, it’s clear that meditation’s positive effects span well beyond relaxation. As we learn more about what meditation can do for us, penciling it into our schedules becomes not just a good idea, but a necessary one.
It can make you a nicer person.
In 2008, researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison assembled a group of thirty-two people—an equal mix of Tibetan monks who had been practicing meditation for several years and people who were inexperienced with meditation—and asked them to perform compassion meditation while their brains were scanned by MRI machines. The non-practitioners were given a two-week course on that type of meditation, which involves consistently focusing on a desire to rid all people of suffering and unhappiness. The scans revealed a great deal of activity in the parts of the brain associated with empathy and emotional responses toward others, and in the monks’ brains, the activity was even more markedly increased, which suggests that compassion can be learned and developed like any other skill.
It can make you smarter.
Okay, so maybe it doesn’t necessarily increase IQs, but meditation has been proven to result in sharpened mental acuity and performance on tests. A 2005 study at the University of Kentucky involved participants doing one of four activities for forty minutes—reading, sleeping, talking with others, or meditating—and then clicking a button whenever they saw an image come onto an LCD screen. Those who meditated did remarkably better than the others, even though none of them had experience with the practice.
A continuation of that same study compared the gamma waves of ten non-practitioners with the Dalai Lama’s eight most experienced and successful meditation devotees. The monks’ brains showed not only faster-moving and stronger gamma rays, but the progression itself was more intricate and formulaic. The inexperienced volunteers also showed more gamma ray activity, but even before the groups began meditating during the brain scans, the monks had higher levels of gamma ray production. So not only can meditation increase gamma ray activity—which directly affects our focus and perception—in the short term, the affects might be long-lasting and progressively more dramatic over time.
It can make your brain grow—no, really!
A study at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston scanned the brains of fifteen practitioners (some with a lot of experience, some with very little). Those who practiced meditation the most had thicker brain cortexes (the part that deals with motor skills and sensory information) than those who practiced less. Similarly, a study at a university in Atlanta used MRI machines on older-aged adults who were experienced with Zen meditation—a type of meditation involving sitting and concentrating on breathing—and compared results with that of older-aged adults who didn’t meditate. Those who didn’t meditate had age-related declines in brain function—less focus, decreasing brain activity, and so forth. The practitioners didn’t show the same kind of correlation, which might mean that diligent meditation can slow down the mental affects of aging.
It can help you control your thoughts and feelings.
People who meditate often report that they are able to take bad news better and remain positive in most situations. Quite a few studies have reached similar conclusions based on their results. For example, researchers from the University of Queensland and the University of California, Berkeley performed an experiment on seventy-six Tibetan monks. The monks were asked to put on goggles that showed different images in each eye while their brain activities were monitored. Most people can’t help but dart between images and their brain scans demonstrate this. These monks were actually able to pinpoint their attention on one object, which could mean that they developed a superior ability to control their minds through meditation. Therefore, they’re able to better avoid the dwelling and negativity that plague the rest of us non-practitioners.
Meditation can even help people cope with stress more successfully. At the University of Oregon in 2008, researchers compared two groups of students: half were taught how to practice mindfulness meditation and the other half were taught relaxation training. After just a few days, the ones who did mindfulness meditation performed better on perception tests and showed decreased levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) compared to the relaxation group.
It can make you think about pain differently.
A study published in Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuropsychology in 1996 explored how people who practiced social transcendental meditation and those who only knew of it through an introductory lecture. Researchers chose twenty-four individuals and put two of their fingers in warm water for a minute and a half, then switched to hot for thirty seconds, and then went back to warm for another minute. Their brains were scanned to show how they processed the different sensations.