We’ve all heard of it, some of us swear by meditation for increasing our mental wellbeing, others think it’s just some hippie mumbo-jumbo.
But what does the science say?
Meditation vs. Mindfulness
Let’s start with a little side note on the terms “meditation” and “mindfulness”. I’ve used these terms interchangeably in this blog post since I tried to stay faithful to the terminology from the original studies mentioned.
Nevertheless, I think it’s important to note here that these 2 terms do not strictly describe the same thing, even though they are closely related concepts. According to Deepak Chopra’s article about meditation vs. mindfulness, meditation means “formal, seated meditation practice”, while mindfulness “is the simple act of paying attention and noticing and being present in whatever you’re doing”.
Therefore, you can practice mindfulness through meditation, but meditation does not necessarily entail mindfulness.
Now, to get back to the topic at hand: It seems that meditation may have widespread positive effects on different areas of the brain.
In 2011, a Harvard team of researchers found that practicing mindfulness led to the growth of brain areas associated with learning, memory, and emotion regulation. At the same time, there were volume decreases in the amygdala, a part of the brain tied to fear, anxiety, and stress. Long-term meditation can even help preserve your brain.
A UCLA study found that long-term meditators showed better-preserved brains than people who didn’t meditate as they got older. Meditating for an average of 20 years seems to have slowed down grey matter loss.
Here are 5 positive effects of meditation that have at least partially been backed up by science.
1. Meditation improves your attention and focus
Researchers have discovered that meditation seems to counteract habituation, which is the tendency to stop paying attention to new information in our environment.
In addition, a study at Yale found that mindfulness meditation can reduce mind-wandering and improve our problem-solving abilities.
Since mind-wandering is typically associated with being less happy, ruminating, and worrying about the past and future, meditation increases our wellbeing by quietening these kinds of thoughts.
Plus, a 2013 study showed 2 weeks of meditation training resulting in an increase of 16 percentile points on the verbal reasoning section of the GRE test.
2. Meditation increases your resilience to stress
Good news: Mindfulness practices dampen the activity in our amygdala and increase the connections between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Both of these parts of the brain help us to be less reactive to stressors and to recover better from stress.
Even better news: Previous studies have shown similar positive effects of meditation and mindfulness practices on stress-related disorders like PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder, and major depressive disorder.
3. Meditation can help with addiction
A growing number of studies have shown that meditation can be very effective in helping people recover from various types of addiction. This is due to meditation’s effects on the brain regions that govern self-control.
According to this article on using meditation in addiction counseling, the main benefits of practising mindfulness for addiction recovery are:
- exposure: individuals are made aware of their urges and thoughts
- cognitive change: patients recognize that thinking something does not make it true
- self-management: they learn to pull themselves away from negative thought spirals
- relaxation: this can lessen the effect of stress and anxiety
- acceptance: instead of fighting their intense urges, patients practice their acceptance of them through meditation.
4. Mindfulness could have a positive impact on your romantic relationship
A few studies have found a positive link between mindfulness and relationship quality.
For example, in one study from 2016, researchers measured mindfulness in 88 couples. They then noted the cortisol levels in each couple before and after they discussed a conflict in their relationship. Cortisol is a stress hormone. Obviously, cortisol levels spiked during the discussion. However, in the most mindful people, they were quicker to return to normal after the discussion ended.
5. Mindfulness seems to reduce many kinds of biases
More and more studies claim that practicing mindfulness can reduce psychological bias. For example, one study found that a brief loving-kindness meditation reduced prejudice toward homeless people, while another found that a brief mindfulness training decreased unconscious bias against black people and elderly people.
Mindfulness also seems to reduce our natural tendency to focus on the negative things in life. In one study, participants reported on their general mindfulness levels, then briefly viewed photos that induced strong positive emotion (like photos of babies), strong negative emotion (like photos of people in pain), or neither, while having their brains scanned.
More mindful participants were less reactive to negative photos and showed higher indications of positive feelings when seeing positive photos. According to the authors, this supports the theory that mindfulness decreases the negativity bias.
That’s it! 5 scientifically-backed ways meditation can benefit you.
Have you tried it yet?
If you need help with setting up your meditation and mindfulness habit, let us know and we’ll be more than happy to help.