We just got a huge step closer to understanding how meditation changes the brain and reduces stress

Night meditation bed yoga

Sit down. Close your eyes. Feel your chest rise and fall with each inhaled and exhaled breath.

For decades, researchers have suggested that this simple practice — known as mindfulness meditation — can have health benefits that range from banal to life-changing. Some occasional meditators report being a little less stressed every once in a while, for example, while other more regular practitioners say it helps them succeed in challenging situations.

In fact, a Tibetan monk who has been called the “world’s happiest man” says even just fifteen minutes of meditation each day can make you feel much better.

And we just got a big step closer to finding out how a few moments of peace may contribute to these benefits.

A new study published this month and reported in the New York Times shows for the first time that when we meditate — independent of whether we’re sage, daily meditators or total newbies — the practice appears to produce measurable changes in two key ways:

1. More brain chatter between two regions:

  • The left prefrontal cortex (LPFC), which tends to be active when we’re exerting self-control, such as picking the Greek yogurt instead of the glazed doughnut at your local breakfast joint
  • The default-mode network (DMN), which tends to be more active when we’re focusing on internal thoughts instead of the outside world

2. Reduced blood levels of a stress-linked substance called IL-6 that’s been linked with inflammation and can sometimes be used as an early indicator of later health problems.

For their study, associate professor of psychology and the director of the Health and Human Performance Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University J. David Creswell and his team studied 35 unemployed people. (Not surprisingly, they all reported feeling stressed-out.) Then, Creswell split the volunteers into two groups. One of the groups got a 3-day formal mindfulness meditation training at a retreat center, while the other got a 3-day “fake” training where they were taught to distract themselves from stressful feelings by stretching and making jokes.

When their three days were up, people in both groups said they felt better.

But scans of their brains and tests of their blood suggested some critical differences between the group that really learned to meditate and the one that was merely distracted.

In the real meditators, the researchers found more activity among portions of their brains involved in focus and self-control. And four months later, the meditators still displayed lower blood levels of the stress-linked substance (even though only a few of them said they’d continued to stick to a meditation practice).

This finding is bolstered by previous research, which suggests that meditation can have the following benefits:

Boosting our ability to relate to others.

In 2008, University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson led a 12-year study on meditation and compassion which included an experiment comparing expert meditators with people who were not experienced in meditation.

Friends laughing

When he had both groups listen to the sounds of several stressed-out voices, two brain areas known to be involved in empathy showed more activity in the meditators than in the non-meditators, suggesting that people who meditate regularly have an enhanced ability to respond to the feelings of others and empathise without feeling overwhelmed.

Improving focus and reducing stress.

Woman writing thinking

Davidson also noted that when he exposed meditators to an outside stimulus meant to startle them — like an alarm going off unexpectedly or a stranger accosting you in the street — during their practice, they were far less put-off by the stimulus compared with someone who was not meditating.

Several small studies of Buddhist monks have also hinted at the idea that meditating helps improve the process by which the brain takes in new information and helps us make decisions.

Dealing with negative feelings.

Multiple studies suggest that meditation can help reduce depression and anxiety. Mindfulness meditation in particular might help people deal with psychological stress, though more research is needed into how meditation might help lead to positive mental health (beyond reducing effects of negative stresses).

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