Meditation is a practice that attracts as many adherents as it does doubters. Most of us have a friend or acquaintance who (sometimes excessively) preaches the benefits of their meditation. But a recent study, published in the academic journal Biological Psychiatry shows that mindfulness meditators are experiencing more than a placebo effect.1 It turns out they’ve really got something to preach about.
In fact, the study, led by J. David Creswell, PhD, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, used brain scans to show just how impactful mindfulness meditation can actually be. Thirty-five individuals all experiencing considerable stress were split into two groups. The first performed formal mindfulness meditation at a retreat, while the second did a type of “false” meditation that did not incorporate mindfulness.
Though both groups thought that they felt de-stressed after taking up meditating, tangible and lasting results were only observed in the mindfulness meditation group. Among the “real” meditators, imaging showed a marked increase in activity among areas of the brain associated with calm and focus. Even four months after the retreats, blood tests showed significantly lower levels of stress hormones in mindfulness meditators.
So how can a mental exercise have such measurable impact on the mind and body?
Relax Your Way To A Strong, Thicker Brain
A good way to begin examining the impact that medication has on the mind is to think about the brain as a muscle. If you went to the gym and did bicep curls every day for a year, your arms would be bigger and stronger. Well it turns out that meditation is your brain’s own form of exercise. And, just like your arms, exercise makes your brain bigger and stronger as well.
Don’t worry – you’re not going to meditate your way to an oversized skull. But over time meditation does make your brain thicker. Through increased “gyrification” – the folding of the tissue of the cortex – the brain strengthens connections between brain cells. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to cause gyrification, and the effect is especially pronounced among longtime practitioners.2
This change is most pronounced in the cerebral cortex and the left and right anterior dorsal insula.3 The cortex is the area of the brain that is responsible for memory, attention, and thought, while the insula manages cognitive integration. By fortifying these two regions, mindfulness meditators increase their emotional control, awareness, and focus.
Strengthening the brain also has long-term benefits. A new study shows that as little as 15 minutes a day of mindfulness meditation can significantly slow the progression of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.4
You Don't Need To Be A Tibetan Monk
Finally, the best news of all: mindfulness meditation is easily incorporated into your life. You don’t need to take a vow of silence or move to a Tibetan monastery to experience its incredible benefits. The practice can be rooted in religion or spirituality but there’s no requirement at all. The only thing required is a quiet space, a small block of time, and a readiness to let your mind truly relax. By living in the moment and letting go of your worries, you’re actually preparing your mind and body to take on stressors.
A good place for most people to start is with a guided course or introductory book. Once you’ve got the hang of it, you’ll be set to get practicing on your own. Setting aside a dedicated time each day can help you incorporate mindfulness meditation into your normal routine. Many people find it can help calm their mind before bed.
There is no need to get stressed out if you don’t know how to meditate. There are several free apps that walk you through the process, I like 10% Happier, HeadSpace and Calm, all available as mobile apps. Give one a try and commit to doing it daily for the next week.