Buddhists, yogis and ayurvedic doctors have said for centuries that meditation improves health and well-being. Now scientists are trying to prove it.
Several clinical studies have documented specific ways that meditating may help people stay healthier, sharpen mental focus and gain more power over their emotions. Some studies even show that the brain of someone who meditates may be physically different from the next guy’s.
Scientists say it’s a very new field of study. But their findings to date offer compelling confirmation to the more than 20 million Americans who meditate — and tell skeptics that those who are getting on the cushion every day might be onto something.
Can meditation make you happier?
When emotions wreak havoc, it helps to “get it out” — ranting to a therapist, friend or spouse, or writing about your feelings in a journal. Sitting down on a cushion to meditate is seemingly the polar opposite of this catharsis. But could it be that the two approaches are helpful for similar reasons?
Talking or writing about your feelings forces you to call them something. And one technique taught in mindfulness meditation is naming your emotions. It’s part of noticing and detaching from those emotions vs. letting them hijack your bliss. Meditation instructor Dianna Dunbar calls it “the mindfulness wedge.” It’s about “helping people develop that pause button,” she says, so they can observe emotions from the outside.
Two UCLA studies showed “that simply labeling emotion promotes detachment,” says David Creswell, Ph.D., a meditation researcher at the university who joined colleague Matthew D. Lieberman, Ph.D., in heading up the studies.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record brain activity and pinpoint where in the brain it occurs, Lieberman’s team found that assigning names to negative emotions turns down the intensity of activity in the amygdala — an almond-sized sector of the brain that acts like an alarm system: When you witness a car crash, argue with your spouse or get yelled at by your boss, it’s your amygdala’s job to set off a cascade of stress-related reactions.
But if you simply name the distressing event, Lieberman says, you can wield more power over your amygdala’s freak-out. “When you attach the word ‘angry,’” he explains, “you see a decreased response in the amygdala.”
Creswell’s 2007 study supported these findings. His team asked 27 undergraduates to fill out a questionnaire on how “mindful” they were — how inclined they were to pay attention to present emotions, thoughts or sensations. They found a striking difference between the brains of those who called themselves mindful and those who didn’t: Mindful patients showed more activity in the areas that calm down emotional response, known as the prefrontal cortex; and less activation in the amygdala.
Twenty-year meditation practitioner Joyce Bonnie says the UCLA findings aren’t surprising to her. But she says having that emotion-diffusing ability is one thing, and using it is another.
“It’s very challenging to bring what you practice on the meditation cushion out in a real-life situation,” says Bonnie, an independent filmmaker in Santa Monica, Calif. “When you’re actually in that moment — say someone is yelling at you — you have to remember to step back, say, ‘Oh, that’s anger I’m feeling,' and change what you do with that emotion, all in a millisecond. It takes a lot of practice.”
Still, the clinical results “may explain the beneficial health effects of mindfulness meditation,” Creswell says, “and suggest why mindfulness meditation programs improve mood and health.
“For the first time since [the Buddha’s] teachings,” he adds, “we have shown that there is actually a neurological reason for doing mindfulness meditation.”
Can meditation make you healthier?
Thirty-seven-year-old mom Nikki Ragonese has meditated for six years as one way to cope with painful degenerative osteoarthritis. Meditation, she says, makes it easier to accept her pain and the difficult emotions it fuels.
“Often when you feel something, you don’t acknowledge it,” Ragonese says. “And by avoiding that feeling, you perpetuate greater pain. Meditation helps me realize that I create my own feelings. If I’m in a state of frustration and I stop and observe it, I realize there’s another way to deal with the pain.”
Ragonese’s mindfulness meditation instructor in Boulder, Colo., therapist Dianna Dunbar, agrees. “I’ve seen patients who gain a greater sense of awareness of their pain become nonjudgmental observers of their pain,” she says. “They are less irritable, and more able to calm down and relax.”
Science is starting to churn out more evidence echoing Ragonese and Dunbar’s experience, showing signs that mindfulness meditation can help ease symptoms of conditions including psoriasis and hypertension as well as chronic pain.
Meditating also slows breathing rate, blood pressure and heart rate, and there’s some evidence that meditation may aid treatment of anxiety, depression, high blood pressure and a range of other ailments.
Can meditation make you smarter?
The buzz about meditation’s ability to turn out shiny, happy people makes you wonder: Do people who meditate have something different going on upstairs than non-meditators do?
A noted 2005 study by Sara Lazar, Ph.D., an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, aimed to find out which parts of the brain become active when a person practices mindfulness and meditation. Her team studied 20 people who meditate regularly and 20 who don’t.
The results were astounding: Brain regions associated with attention, sensory awareness and emotional processing — the cortex — were thicker in meditators. In fact, meditators’ brains grew thicker in direct correlation with how much they meditated.
The findings suggest that meditation can change the brain’s structure — perhaps because certain brain regions are used more frequently in the process of meditation, and therefore grow.
Lazar says it’s a “huge, huge, huge” leap to assert that meditators’ brains function better. “We really don’t know how meditation works,” Lazar cautions, stressing that scientists are merely uncovering “pieces of the puzzle.”
Yet for anyone accustomed to waiting for a chorus of nods from science before trying alternative methods, these tip-of-the-iceberg findings may be ample proof of what Eastern cultures have been saying for centuries: Meditation is good for you.