The Scientific Perspective on Meditation


Science is known for encompassing systematic studies through observation and experiment. Whatever is curious can be studied. Are the benefits of meditation just a myth or does the scientific community actually have proof of them? Yes, they do!

A meta-analysis study for those who don’t know is an examination of data from multiple independent studies in order to determine overall trends on a particular subject. According to Dr Richard Chambers, a clinical psychologist and mindfulness expert has stated that one of these studies showed that meditation is just as effective in preventing a relapse of depression than anti-depressants, medication works by pumping feel good chemicals like serotonin through our nervous system, and meditation does exactly that too.

Meditation helps to exert less brain activity, making us feeling calmer and expanding our capacity to learn. Even though more neurons are being produced when we meditate and that therefore more traffic of electrical current flows through the brain as a result of this it actually helps the output of exertion on the brain. Think of the brain like a big town but this town is deprived of enough roads and carriageways, new roads then have to be built because traffic will flow very slowly. Once construction is finished and these new roads are completely built the result therefore would be a fewer number of vehicles passing through the streets. Instead of diverting around the town to get to whatever destination the driver needs to get to, more neurons are being produced when there is a lower electrical current that passes through them resulting in us to have a higher capacity to concentrate and focus on our daily tasks, feeling better throughout the day, less tired and also a much better capacity to learn new things and to remember them.  Just as the town now has a better capacity for more vehicles. Electricity, even in standard circuits are very lazy! They always aim to get to A-B in the shortest route possible, so then, when we meditate, we relax the electrical current in our neurons by doing just that, meaning our brain will feel more relaxed as a result.

Professor of Psychology at the University of California, San Francisco Elisa Epel has researched the effects of ageing and meditation and has found that our protein shells that protect our chromosomes known as telomeres increase in size. People with shorter telomere size are more prone to developing diseases such as Alzheimer’s, cancer and diabetes. Our DNA structure is also a factor for how we age meaning that frequent meditation practise makes us live longer.

According to science meditation can help our crucial decision making, a study done by UCLA in 2012 on those that routinely meditate for an extended amount of time have larger amounts of gyrification, that is folding of the brain’s cortex than the average brain. Increased gyrification means additional surface area of the brain, which the study found enhances neural processing or decision making. More studies are needed. However, the UCLAresearch found this to imply that meditation can lead to improvements in the way the brain performs a series of tasks, with making decisions as part of this.

Cortisol is a hormone that is responsible for heightening our emotions, causing stress, and with that comes the thickening of the blood. The effects of meditation have been studied by science and has found that it helps to block cortisol from being released in large doses meaning that our blood remains healthily thinner, lessening our chances of having strokes, heart attacks, or seizures.

Mindfulness improves our hearing. This was studied at the University of Oregon. Music students here were given a 15-minute guided meditation before listening to a 10-minute excerpt of Giacomo Puccini’s opera ‘La Boheme’. Their peak experiences and ‘flow’ were measured and compared to a control group who didn’t receive the meditation. Results showed that 97 percent of the participants who meditated had either one or several moments of flow or esthetic response. Of the 69 subjects who engaged in mindfulness 64 percent thought the technique had enhanced their listening experience. Attention can be manipulated. By training our mind to be present our ears can work extremely well.

Our heart health can really benefit, the evidence for this one is overwhelming. This was proven over a 5-year study where two groups of participants would either practice meditation whereas the rest would improve their diet and frequency of exercise. Both groups had their hearts examined and they found that the ones who meditated were 48% less likely to have a stroke or heart attack than the others.

Our awareness shoots right up as a result of regular activity of meditation, this has been proven by MRI scans. Researchers compared 21 experienced mindfulness meditators with 19 who’d only recently took up the activity recently. They found the neural correlates of mindfulness were more pronounced in experienced meditators. In particular, the experienced meditators showed decreased activation in prefrontal cortical midline structures and language-related left inferior prefrontal areas.

The default mode network (DMN) is a system of connected brain areas that show increased activity when a person is not focused on the outside world, it is where the centre of all of our critical thinking is and lets us to examine ourselves from the outside of our body. Meditation is well known to reset all of our anxieties, and self-critical thinking meaning that we can re-programme our self-beliefs, our confidence and the way we think about ourselves.  Research has showed that the DMN is incredibly active.

Sleep quality has been studied and it has proven extensively that meditation is one of the better-known effects of mindfulness. It can also easily be tested by oneself. Not only does it decrease the chances of waking up throughout the night but it also improves mood upon wakening and can clear your foggy mind for those who experience it and find it difficult to focus, this can even be noticeable upon the first seconds of opening your eyes in the morning.

It can fight against addictive behaviour. 1000’s of people have managed to quit bad habits through meditation and the causes of this has been proved from a myriad of studies. Results have been published by many notable publications such as Journal of Addiction Medicine and Addiction Research.

Memory improves. This again could from the lowering levels of cortisol but can also be a factor of structural changes in the brain, particularly in the hippocampus which plays a huge part in memory.

Meditation increases the mass of our pre-frontal cortex. This research was done by Australian science group ABC Science where a participant went under an 8-week meditation study to find that the pre-frontal cortex – which was described by researchers as – ‘the conductor of the brain if the brain was an orchestra,’ to increase in size. This part of the brain is what separates our human intelligence from animals, because it is more than twice the size of any animal when comparing the total mass of it from the rest of the brain. When the participant had looked at his results – it increased by more than 4%

It also increases smaller parts of the brain, in the exact same study, there were also other smaller parts of the brain that had greatly increased in the participants size – in particular parts of the hippocampus and the amygdala. The most shocking find was that his Cingulate Gyrus, a part of the hippocampus had increased by a staggering 29%! All these changes can have different effects but it’s all for the benefit of our brain, wellbeing, thinking and cognitive abilities.

It makes our dreams more memorable. This relates to all of the research mentioned in the article so far, it correlates with concentration and clarity. It is not proven that our dreams are more vivid, although from a personal angle this is an opinion that I would agree with. However, it certainly helps for us to remember our dreams, which is also key for cleansing the pineal gland and opening the third eye chakra – something that is a key goal for long term meditators. Remembering our dreams and making a journal is important for awareness, spirituality and getting to know ourselves better.

Levels of empathy are increased. This is what a 2008 case study proved. The results were published by the American Psychological Association. This happens as less of the protein substance cytokine is produced in the brain which in part diminishes feelings of anxiety and stress. This process also increases feelings of love and kindness – even towards strangers.

It can give us automatic control over our nervous system.To achieve this we may have to meditate regularly for a very long time – that’s exactly what Wim Hof had done to be able to withstand unbelievably cold temperatures that most healthy people would be killed in and he was able to meditate in those conditions without experiencing any kind of flu or cold symptoms. Dr. Peter Pickerrs of Radboud university injected Wim Hof with bacteria to measure his immune response – he managed to supress the immune response by 50% more than all other participants. Wim Hof attributes this to meditation.