Meditation, contemplation, or focusing the mind has been practiced for several thousand years. Hinduism and the Vedic religions confirm this and it may well have been practised as part of the rituals of the Bronze Age Indus Valley Civilization.
Certainly it is part of the practices of almost all religions in some form and is particularly important in Eastern faiths such as Hinduism, Yoga, Taoism, Krishna Consciousness and the many forms of Buddhism.
It has been integrated into other religions including Christianity, Islam and Judaism and embraced by New Age spiritual practices, gathering particular fame and popularity in the 1960’s throughout the West largely due to The Beatles and their association with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Transcendental Meditation.
The benefits reported by practitioners are great and cover a range of claims from aiding relaxation and concentration, reducing stress, lowering blood pressure and other medical benefits to the more outlandish claims of enabling eternal life and achieving flight. These claims have aroused the interest of the Scientific community and many studies have been undertaken in order to understand better the true effects of meditation. It is a pity that so many of these studies have been associated with Transcendental Meditation® which has a strongly commercial and political structure making the objectivity of many of the studies difficult to believe.
However, the body of serious scientific evidence is beginning to build and modern techniques such as MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans have been used to measure the physical and psychological effects produced by meditation.
Using Clinically Standardized Meditation (CSM), a “bare bones” form of meditation that includes no spiritual practices as part of it’s routine, is equally effective. This shows that the religious aspect often applied to meditation serves as nothing other than a means of focus for the practitioner i.e. it is not at all essential to have a religious belief in order to benefit from meditation. However, using a spiritual belief as a means of focus can produce stronger effects.
In 2005, a team at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, compared a group of meditators with mixed experience against 15 non-meditators.
Using MRI scans it was found that meditation actually increases the thickness of the cortex in areas involved in attention and sensory processing, such as the prefrontal cortex and the right anterior insula. These areas appear to be “exercised” during meditation and their size increases – similar to a muscle increasing in size during physical exercise. The finding compares with studies showing that accomplished musicians, athletes and linguists all have thickening in relevant areas of the cortex. The growth of the cortex is not due to the growth of new neurons but results from wider blood vessels, more supporting structures such as glia and astrocytes, and increased branching and connections.
Andrew Newberg, a radiologist at the University of Pennsylvania used brain imaging to study a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks as they meditated for approximately one hour.
When they reached a transcendental high, they were asked to pull a cord releasing an injection of a radioactive tracer. The scientists mapped how the dye moved to active parts of the brain and compared the images obtained during deep meditation with those of a normal waking state. Dr Newberg explained his findings thus: “There was an increase in activity in the front part of the brain, the area that is activated when anyone focuses attention on a particular task”. In addition, a notable decrease in activity in the back part of the brain, or parietal lobe, recognised as the area responsible for orientation, reinforced the general suggestion that meditation leads to a lack of spatial awareness.
Dr Newberg explained: “During meditation, people have a loss of the sense of self and frequently experience a sense of no space and time and that was exactly what we saw.” In addition, Newberg found subtle differences in the baseline state of the brain in the Tibetan meditators. This raises an interesting question regarding whether their brains have changed because of practicing meditation for 20 years or whether their brains have always been that way, and that is why meditation is so effective for them.
Researchers at the University of California in San Francisco Medical Centre have found the practise of Buddhism can tame the amygdala, an area of the brain which is central to fear memory. They discovered that experienced Buddhists, who meditate regularly, were less likely to be shocked, flustered, surprised or as angry compared to control groups.
In a separate study, conducted by Chinese undergraduate students, the stress hormone cortisol was found to be lowered after only five days, during which a group of students meditated once a day for twenty minutes. The researchers also assessed mood states and found improvements in scores assessing anxiety, depression, conflict transformation, anger and fatigue. Although only using a small group of eighty volunteers in experimental or control groups, the tests were well conducted and the assessor’s results blinded during the scoring process.
Scientists at the University of Wisconsin at Madison examined brain activity in a group of experienced Buddhists and found enhanced activity in the left prefrontal lobes. These areas were unusually active compared to the average subject and not just during meditation.
The left prefrontal lobes are associated with positive emotions, self-control and temperament. One hypothesis is that meditation and Buddhist practice has physically altered the brain and produced a positive state. It is without doubt that these practitioners were truly happy and calm and not just appearing so.
There is real evidence that the practice of meditation can be greatly beneficial and is more effective than other stress relieving techniques. Its use alongside traditional medical treatment has also shown effectiveness in the treatment of Hypertension, Insomnia, Addictive Behaviour, Angina Pectoris and Diabetes as well as many other medical conditions.
Goleman & Bennett-Goleman, have suggested that meditation works because of the relationship between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. Simply put, the amygdala is the part of the brain that decides if we should get angry or anxious (among other things), and the prefrontal cortex is the part that inhibits our responses or makes us stop and think. The prefrontal cortex analyzes data but it takes time to make decisions. The amygdala, being evolutionary older, works in a more primitive manner making snap judgements and strong responses including the classic “fight or flight” response. In behaving in this kneejerk way the amygdala can cry wolf and misjudge situations. In modern society, this can easily lead to conflict situations, stress, anxiety and panic when confronted with emotional situations. The experienced meditator can use the prefrontal cortex to limit the kneejerk reaction of the amygdala and often divert the brain’s responses to more positive feelings.
In addition to these effects on the brain, meditation has also been measured using EEG (electroencephalography). It has shown that, during meditation, brainwave activity moves through the “Alpha” state which is linked to relaxation and creative visualisation and, as the meditative state deepens, the Theta state” where brain activity slows almost to the point of sleep. Theta brings forward heightened receptivity, and dreamlike imagery. This state can also produce a sensation of “floating”. In these brain states, it is possible that here is the link to claims of Yogic Flying.
In conclusion, the measurable effects of meditation can be shown to bring many positive states to the individual. Meditation is a practice that can have great benefits to an individual whether embraced as part of daily life or as part of spiritual practices.
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