Mindfulness and meditation have become mainstream buzzwords — appearing on the cover of Time magazine, in Forbes, and even on 60 Minutes. How did these fringe ideas translate into such significant elements of our cultural consciousness?
Well, what used to be conjecture is now backed up by data. Translation: Science can measure the impact meditation has on the body and the brain, and the results are turning people on to the practice in droves. Here are three of the most compelling conclusions science has revealed about meditation’s impact on the way we function.
1. Meditation can literally rewire our brains.
Thanks to the advent of MRI machines (functional magnetic resonance imaging), we can now watch our brains in real time.
Scientists used to think our brains stopped developing after a certain age and became static. We now know the brain is in fact dynamic, not static. This means we can intentionally cultivate the brain for well-being and grow new brain cells (neurogenesis) and new neural pathways (neuroplasticity). We also know the brain changes in response to experience.
This is HUGE. It means we can literally change the way we think!
With training, scientists have now shown, we can reroute the neural pathways that regulate our emotions, thoughts, and reactions. This means we can create new neural pathways — highways in our brain — that lead us to compassion, gratitude, and joy instead of anxiety, fear, and anger. We can reprogram our brains’ automatic response (this is a simple thing, but not an easy one) by making a conscious effort to build new pathways. Meditation is one way to do this.
2. Meditation can alter the expression of our genes.
Epigenetics is the study of how genes are regulated and expressed. Imagine that your genes have dials that go from low to high. You’re born with your own set of DNA, but how your particular genes are turned off and on is highly dynamic and can be affected by your experience.
The way a mother interacts with her offspring, for example, can significantly affect the regulation of genes in the brains of the offspring, and this alteration of gene expression exists for the entire duration of that offspring’s life.
One prominent neuroscientist, Richard Davidson, recently showed that gene expression can change with meditation. By taking blood samples from long-term meditators in the lab after a day of intensive practice, he found evidence of a measurable alteration in gene expression.
This study showed that just eight hours of meditation is significant enough to induce a change in gene expression!
3. Meditation can improve your ability to handle adversity.
This incredible study basically found a way to legally torture meditators!
As part of the study, long-term meditators were presented with a painful stimulus. Scientists created a device that was placed on the inside of the wrist and regulated the temperature of water inside the device. This allowed the scientists to deliver heat in a safe way in order to produce a burning sensation without actually injuring the participants.
Imagine having a water-filled plastic bag on your wrist that could instantaneously became very hot, but only long enough to give you the feeling that you were being burned without doing any lasting damage — yikes!
Participants in the study were presented with a bell to warn them that the pain was coming. When participants heard the bell, it meant that in 10 seconds they were going to get zapped by the painful stimulus, after which they got a period of rest.
To calibrate everyone’s pain levels and give them a sense of what to expect, all participants were given one demo in which they heard the bell, got zapped by the painful stimulus, and then had a rest period.
Then, the bell, painful stimulus, and rest period were given to both meditators and non-meditators while monitoring their brain activity. The scientists discovered that when the non-meditators got the cue bell warning them of the painful stimulus, their brains went nuts. All the pain circuits started to activate before the pain was even delivered.
When they anticipated the pain, their brains responded as though they were already in pain, even though they had only received the warning bell.
The scientists also discovered that in the period immediately after the pain stimulus, the pain circuits of non-meditators remained activated. In other words they acted like they were still in pain even though the burning sensation was over.
Long-term meditators, on the other hand, showed very little brain activity during the anticipation period and an acute response to the heat (when they were actually in pain). During the recovery period, the meditators’ brains showed very little activity.
The meditators reported feeling distress and suffering primarily ONLY when they were experiencing the painful stimulus. Non-meditators, in contrast, reported suffering before, during, and after the painful stimulus.
This means that the meditators experienced less suffering. And they showed an ability to rapidly recover from adversity as compared to non-meditators.
All this goes to show that if you want to experience less suffering, greater happiness, and more gratitude, you may want to give meditation a try.