Four reasons you should meditate (according to the science)

October 13, 2015

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Have you thought about meditation? I bet you have. If not because you've heard it can be good for you, then because one of your mates has (and won't stop talking about it probably). Well, its no...


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Have you thought about meditation? I bet you have. If not because you've heard it can be good for you, then because one of your mates has (and won't stop talking about it probably). Well, its no secret that people find it helpful. It's been used in eastern spiritual and health-related practices for longer than we could fathom. But does the fact that people find it helpful translate to actual, tangible benefits?

The two kinds of meditation

  1. The goal of concentrative meditation is to regulate our breathing, curtail the impact of the environment around us, create specific images in the mind (or free our mind from thought). We might possibly introduce physical positions to enhance this process (yogic positions).
  2. However, mindfulness meditation, is more about letting our thoughts and memories pass freely through the mind without a response from us.

But what does the research say?

Let's face it. The idea of meditation is tied up with the 'Lifestyles Of Health And Sustainability' market, or (as one major website cleverly re-branded it) 'mind, body, green' movement. It's a perfectly admirable movement, focused on personal development and healthy and sustainable living. Unfortunately, some of the most vocal advocates of the movement tend to be rather eccentric. I'll be honest, as soon as one puts on those multicoloured baggy pants, grows dreadlocks and discusses the benefits of shamanism through a cloud of green smoke, no matter one's academic scholarship, one loses face. So let's take meditation out of that context, avoiding vague references to eastern spiritual practices and look at the research.
  • Commonly, research focuses on the anxiety and stress reducing functions of meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation (at least when compared to doing nothing at all). That last study focused too on the link between anxiety and heart disease, which is a fairly accepted one, so meditation could have a reasonably significant impact on health, albeit indirectly.
  • Meditation has been shown to be associated with changes in brain activity too. Comparing experienced practitioners of meditation with similar people who don't meditate showed a difference in brain volume over time (older non-meditators had less brain volume than similarly aged meditators).
  • Not only does meditation seem to be related to the reduction of age-related effects on the brain, but eight-weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (kind of like clinical meditation) saw enhanced connectivity in the brain (compared to those who didn't do the program. Something that has been replicated since.
  • And there are plenty of other studies out there that link meditation (particularly mindfulness meditation) to increased focus, creativity and even more satisfying relationships (although we must be cautious of assuming a link implies causality and these links are less certain).

So what's the verdict?

Well it's pretty clear that mindfulness meditation has been fairly strongly linked to some positive outcomes. It's difficult to say that the links between concentrative meditation is as clear, but this is possibly because mindfulness meditation is easier to test in a clinical setting (much like the well studied cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and its vague cousin, psychodynamic therapy). But, much like CBT, I think I'll stick to the evidenced approach and reap the benefits I know, rather than the ones I hope to achieve. Only problem then is that, as Philip K. Dick most famously noted (which is weird because you'd think he'd have a more famous quote from ...Electric Sheep):

the problem with introspection is that it has no end

Considering meditation? Maybe you should look into hypnosis too (if only to do some mythbusting). Or, speaking of well-studied phenomenon, why do you learn how always being right makes you dumber? Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

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