When it comes to meditation, what comes to your mind?
Someone sitting in the Himalaya in a lonely temple, motionless in silence for good? That’s at least what I had in mind before I started meditating 😀 . I don’t want to generalise it but usually we think that meditation has to be something sacred, serious and by all that pretty difficult to do in our modern western lives. The funny thing is that modern science is also discovering the benefits, which mediation can offer for your physical and mental health. So, how come and what do they see in it?
Before we start to dive into the fascinating science behind it, I think we should define what meditation is in order to have a common base…
What is meditation?
First of all, I want to get rid of the most frequent prejudice I have experienced concerning meditation.
Meditating must be so difficult. I mean you're not supposed to think of anything, right?
And here I can absolutely give you a big NOPE!
Meditation can be anything but clearly not fighting an inner battle with your thoughts since thoughts are a part of you. It would (and usually it does) turn into an exhausting battle inside you.
Meditation means being mindful.
And by definition, being MIND-FUL means to be in your mind, to pay attention what it says and does in that very moment. Not more, not less. That being said, it usually means to just observe your thoughts. NOT to try to get rid of them 🙂 . Well, how does watching your crazy monkey-mind influence or even improve your health? And that’s where our good ol’ friend science comes to play.
Level I: The Obvious
Investigating the mental health through awareness and mindfulness training is not modern science, it actually already popped up in the 70s with the growing influence of eastern philosophy and practices such as Yoga, Qi Gong or Tai Chi. Looking into more modern studies it becomes clear that mindfulness is associated with a greater
- ability to concentrate and to perform
- self-esteem and a higher sense of purpose
Moreover, various studies could show a decrease in negative symptoms as anxiety, depression, difficulties in emotional control and also neuroticism, just to mention a few . How can this be explained? Basically, when you start observing your inner patterns and thoughts you practice the ability to distance yourself from negative emotions and not being obsessed with them all the time (See also one of my blog posts about this topic). The more you practice, the easier it gets to make a clear cut and to let you see reality how it is .
This sounds already quite nice and promising, doesn’t it? However, it’s still everything quite subjective and not really measurable…
Level II: Neurological Alterations In The Brain Structure
So now let’s dive a bit deeper and go directly into our brains. Using different kinds of neurological imaging methods, scientists could show that basically the brain activity changes during meditation and also after a consistent practice. The amygdala (our own personal center for emotions in the brain, a.k.a “the drama queen” 😉 ) shows a reduced activity, which means that we have a better control over our emotions and don’t identify ourselves with them. Apart from the sensed activities in the brain, it could also be shown that some distinct brain areas benefit from an increase in grey matter (which means a greater neurological network). These areas are responsible for attention and awareness, which is of advantage for the overall concentration capacity .
Level III: The Influence Of Meditation On Gene Expression And The Immune System
Ok, now it get’s really dirty…eeh nerdy! 😎
With science and technology developing so fast, it is now quite simple measuring the influence of our genes on a cellular level. Researchers could show that different kinds of mindfulness techniques – in this particular case Qi Gong – decrease the inflammatory response in the body. They could measure lower levels of genes expressed which are connected to cellular stress and inflammation . It could also be shown that genes, which are in favour of immune function and prolong cell survival, are up-regulated in a specialised type of immune cells called neutrophils (our first barrier of defence during infection). A different study discovered also an increase in antiviral activity in certain immune cell types. And, eventually, several publications state that patients who absolved a mindfulness training program, showed a greater amount of antibodies in their bodies .
Phew, quite some reading, huh? 🙂 So as you can see, meditation and science are not so contradictory as it may seem at first. A lot of things are happening right now in the field. Of course, being a scientist myself, I don’t want to forget mentioning that it is really difficult to investigate this topic unbiased since there are just few standardised criteria and some of these studies were performed with only few participants. As always I recommend everyone to use his/her common sense. 😉
From my side, I can only give you the sincere advice to just try it yourself, to experience your personal benefits in the work with your inner mind…
Shian-Ling Kenga, Moria J. Smoskib, and Clive J. Robinsa, 2011. Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies. Clin Psychol Rev. 2011 August ; 31(6): 1041–1056. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2011.04.006.
Hayes, SC.; Strosahl, KD.; Wilson, KG. Acceptance and commitment therapy. New York: Guilford Press; 1999.
 Ivana Buric, Miguel Farias, Jonathan Jong, Christopher Mee and Inti A. Brazil, 2017. What Is the Molecular Signature of Mind–Body Interventions? A Systematic Review of Gene Expression Changes Induced by Meditation and Related Practices. Front. Immunol. 8:670. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2017.00670.
 David S. Black and George M. Slavich, 2016. Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2016 June ; 1373(1): 13–24. doi:10.1111/nyas.12998.