Science | Meditation

Harvard Medical School is currently funding a five year study to investigate the impact of meditation on genes and brain activity in the chronically stressed. The prestige of this study may mean more medical practitioners recommend mediation in the midst of treating a myriad of modern ailments.

Western culture’s understanding of mediation is, in its simplest form, mindfulness, the practice of maintaining your attention span in deep breaths. Akin to most of our societal recommendations, this is typically followed by a time protocol. These guidelines can create confusion. Our tendency to turn intuition into indoctrination means the ethos of meditation easily dwindles in our modern environment.

Now, neuroscience is increasingly directing its research efforts into mediation, simply because favourable evidence is mounting: enhanced attention spans, immune systems and inner peace. Dr Hasenkamp, from the Mind and Life Institute, stresses the importance of purposeful mediation: “while we aim to focus on breath, the goal is to learn about our minds. We do this by setting up the conditions for thoughts to arise and then observe them non-judgmentally.” An influx of thoughts, like ions crossing a membrane, are only passing. We must not identify with the thought process; thoughts are merely entries that are meant to arise, not entities to be acted upon, entirely.  Additional work conducted at the institute showed the enhanced coherence of brain activity within attentive networks and control regions involved in brain wandering, implying that concentration is trainable, as is letting go of intrusive thoughts.

Practice of any skill builds brain circuits and science is constantly producing evidence for the relationship between diligence and determination in altering brains, physically. For instance, mediation plays a crucial role in brain plasticity. Mechanisms are shown to work synergistically, establish a process of enhanced self-regulation. Supplementary to this, other scientific studies are showing the profound influence of meditation on brain structure: increases in grey matter density, cortical thickness and enhanced integrity of cognitive control connections between brain regions. Additionally, there is correlation between the number of meditative hours of practice and increased cortical folding in the insula, important for autonomic, emotional and cognitive integration.

Supported by careful clinical studies, this field is offering processed scientific understanding on thoughtful therapeutics. Notably, work by Nobel prize laureate Elizabeth Blackburn demonstrated that daily 12 minute yoga increased activity of “immortal” telomerase by 43 per cent. This adds to other studies, which showed how meditative yoga decreased hippocampal shrinkage, to demonstrate that mindfulness may halt stress induced aging and so can slow down the development of dementia disorders.

To think, this theory may appear inaccessible to the masses; media misinformation has manifested meditation in the context of crossed legs and a yoga mat.  In actuality, becoming aware is simple. There is no manifesto to mediation; to paraphrase the Dalai Lama, you meditate to simplify your emotions.


Sofia Popov 

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