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Science Favors Meditation

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In an article by Rachel Brand for Gaiam Community, a link between the spiritual benefits of meditation and the supporting science was sought. On the spiritual side of things, Buddhists, yogis, and ayurvedic doctors have said for centuries that meditation improves health and well-being. Scientists are now trying to prove it.

Note: The remainder of this post focuses on points of personal and social interest with respect to Brand’s article.

MEDITATION AND HAPPINESS

Meditating may help people stay healthier, sharpen mental focus, and gain more power over their emotions.

The brain of someone who meditates may be physically different from the next person’s.

Talking or writing about your feelings forces you to call them something. It’s part of noticing and detaching from those emotions versus letting them hijack your bliss. It’s about helping people develop that pause button, so they can observe emotions from the outside.

Two UCLA studies showed “that simply labeling emotion promotes detachment,” says David Creswell, Ph.D., a meditation researcher at the university who joined colleague Matthew D. Lieberman, Ph.D., in heading up the studies.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record brain activity and pinpoint where in the brain it occurs, Lieberman’s team found that assigning names to negative emotions turns down the intensity of activity in the amygdala — an almond-sized sector of the brain that acts like an alarm system: When you witness a car crash, argue with your spouse or get yelled at by your boss, it’s your amygdala’s job to set off a cascade of stress-related reactions.

But if you simply name the distressing event, Lieberman says, you can wield more power over your amygdala’s freak-out. “When you attach the word ‘angry,’” he explains, “you see a decreased response in the amygdala.”

Mindful patients (those inclined to pay attention to present emotions, thoughts, or sensations) show more activity in the areas that calm down emotional response, known as the prefrontal cortex; and less activation in the amygdala.

Twenty-year meditation practitioner Joyce Bonnie says having that emotion-diffusing ability is one thing, and using it is another. “It’s very challenging to bring what you practice on the meditation cushion out in a real-life situation,” says Bonnie. “When you’re actually in that moment — say someone is yelling at you — you have to remember to step back, say, ‘Oh, that’s anger I’m feeling,’ and change what you do with that emotion, all in a millisecond. It takes a lot of practice.”

Creswell says, “For the first time since [the Buddha’s] teachings,” he adds, “we have shown that there is actually a neurological reason for doing mindfulness meditation.”

MEDITATION AND PHYSICAL HEALTH

Dianna Dunbar, a mindfulness meditation instructor says, “I’ve seen patients who gain a greater sense of awareness of their pain become nonjudgmental observers of their pain. They are less irritable, and more able to calm down and relax.” Science is starting to churn out more evidence echoing Dunbar’s experience, showing signs that mindfulness meditation can help ease symptoms of conditions including psoriasis (a chronic disease of the skin), hypertension (blood pressure above normal), and chronic pain.

Meditating slows breathing rate, blood pressure, and heart rate, and there’s some evidence that meditation may aid treatment of anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and a range of other ailments.

MEDITATION AND INTELLECT

As noted in a 2005 study by Sara Lazar, Ph.D., an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, brain regions associated with attention, sensory awareness, and emotional processing (the cortex) were thicker in meditators (as compared to non-meditators). In fact, meditators’ brains grew thicker in direct correlation with how much they meditated.

The findings suggest that meditation can change the brain’s structure; perhaps because certain brain regions are used more frequently in the process of meditation, and therefore grow. Lazar concludes by saying, “We really don’t know how meditation works,” stressing that scientists are merely uncovering “pieces of the puzzle.”

As Brand so accurately puts it, “… for anyone accustomed to waiting for a chorus of nods from science before trying alternative methods, these tip-of-the-iceberg findings may be ample proof of what Eastern cultures have been saying for centuries: Meditation is good for you.”

Be Well.

meditation
Photo: Meditation

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Written by Ethan Handur

October 27, 2007 at 15:56

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