The Science Behind the Benefits of Meditation
Below is a brief sampling of scientific findings that demonstrate the positive health benefits of meditation, including:
- lower stress levels
- increased focus and awareness, and
- enhanced positive emotion, learning, and memory.
Lower stress levels
Meditation promotes physiological changes that block the ability of stress hormones to influence the brain and body.1 Meditation can produce an effect on the body that resembles a class of drugs (beta blockers) used to treat the symptoms of stress-related conditions. These changes invoke a natural relaxation response that is the opposite of the fight-or-flight response to stress.2
Increased focus and awareness
During meditation, attention is often focused on a repeated sound, word, or phrase.2 This activates regions of the brain related to attention and focus. Research suggests that the amount of time spent meditating each day is positively correlated with performance on attentional tasks. 3
Enhanced positive emotion, learning, and memory
Many regions of the brain contain a substance composed of cell bodies known as gray matter, which assists in routing sensory stimuli to the central nervous system. An area with a higher concentration of gray matter suggests a stronger functional ability in processing and transporting information throughout the brain.4
Researchers have found that compared to non-meditating individuals, those who meditate have a higher density of gray matter in multiple brain regions, particularly the hippocampus. This suggests that over time, meditation has the ability to benefit the functionality of activities regulated by the hippocampus: learning, memory, and emotion.4,5
Health benefits of meditation were also shown through studies of practiced meditators who had shrinkage and lesser gray matter density in the amygdala, the portion of the brain that initiates the bodyʼs response to stress and plays a key role in emotional memory and reactivity. These findings suggest that meditation may help control unconscious emotional reactions.4-6
Studies also found that those who meditated had higher levels of brain function in the left frontal region of the brain, a pattern associated with positive, approach-oriented emotional states.7
1. A. Mohan, R. Sharma, and R. Bijlani, “Effect of Meditation on Stress-Induced Changes in Cognitive Functions,” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 17 (3) (2011): 207-212.
2. H. Benson, “The Relaxation Response,” in Mind Body Medicine: How to Use Your Mind for Better Health, ed. D. Goleman and J. Gurin (New York, NY: Consumer Reports Book, 1993).
3. D. Chan and M. Woollacott, “Effects of Level of Meditation Experience on Attentional Focus: Is the Efficiency of Executive or Orientation Networks Improved?” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 13(6) (2007): 651-657.
4. B. K. Hölzel, J. Carmody, M. Vangel, C. Congleton, S. M. Yerramsetti, T. Gard, and S. W. Lazar, “Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increases in Regional Brain Gray Matter Density,” Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191 (2010): 36–43.
5. Y. Tang, Y. Ma, J. Wang, Y. Fan, S. Feng, Q. Lu, Q. Yu, D. Sui, M. Rothbart, M. Fan, and M. Posner, “Short-term Meditation Improves Attention and Self-Regulation,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104(43) (2007): 17152-17156.
6. A. Lutz, H. A. Slagter, J. D. Dunne, R. J. Davidson, “Attention Regulation and Monitoring in Meditation,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(4) (2008): 163-169.
7. C. Moyer, M. Donnelly, J. Andersson, K. Valek, S. Huckaby, D. Wiederholt, R. Doty, A. Rehlinger, and B. Rice, “Frontal Electroencephalographic Asymmetry Associated with Positive Emotion is Produced by Very Brief Meditation Training,” Psychological Science, 22 (10) (2011): 1277-1279.
Visit the website of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health (http://nccam.nih.gov/health/meditation) for more information on studies related to the benefits of meditation.