Mindfulness meditation is a process of relaxing the mind which leads to a state of consciousness that brings clarity and serenity to ones life. From decreasing stress or anxiety, to improving sleep, memory or general wellbeing – more and more research shows that mindfulness has many physical and psychological benefits.
Generally speaking there are two different meditation techniques: one is called focused meditation, the other mindfulness meditation. With focused meditation, we pay attention to one specific experience (ie our breath) to the exclusion of all else. Mindfulness meditation is a „nonjudgmental awareness of experiences in the present moment."
What's the Science behind it?
Using fMRI scans, scientists discovered that during meditation our brains stop processing. The image below shows a dramatic decrease in beta waves, which indicate processing of information, after just 10 minutes of meditation by someone who has not done it before.
Studies conclude that Meditation is specifically beneficial for these brain regions:
Responsible for reasoning, planning and emotions, this is one of the most highly evolved parts of the brain.
Processes sensory information about the world, this part of the brain supports your orientation in time and space.
This part of the brain relays sensory and motor signals and regulates alertness by focusing on specific sensory data.
This region regulates the sleep-wake cycle and filters incoming stimuli to discriminate irrelevant background stimuli.
What are the Benefits?
Numerous studies have shown that meditation can improve our ability to sustain attention and focus under pressure. A study in 2009 examined how four days of training for just 20 minutes per day helped on a series of cognitive tests. Practitioners performed significantly better than non-practitioners on tasks with time constraints.
Meditation has been shown to help people to perform under pressure while feeling less stressed. An extensive study with managers found that those who practiced meditation felt significantly less stress during rigorous test. A more recent study even found that meditation is directly linked to decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Meditation has an overwhelmingly positive effect on our anxiety level by loosening the neural connection between sensory input and the medial prefrontal cortex. Stanford scientists could also link meditation to lowered activity in the amygdala, a region associated with triggering fear.
More recently meditation was discovered to have a positive effect on memory. Meditators were found to have a "superior ability to remember and incorporate new facts". They perform better on reasoning tests and experience improvements in their working memory.
Regular meditation has been shown to decrease reactivity of the amygdala, leading to an increased level of empathy and compassion. Conversely, a study in 2008 found that meditators had stronger reactivity levels in their temporal parietal junctures (a part of the brain tied to empathy) than those who didn’t meditate.
While mostly connected to benefits of relaxing and calming the mind, meditation has also been shown to increase our capacity to think creatively. Researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands showed that mindfulness meditation has a positive effect on convergent and divergent thinking, both connected to creativity.
Meditation has been suggested to help with many of the issues that stop us sleeping. In a study at the Stanford Medical Centre 30 participants suffering from insomnia undertook a 6 week meditation program. At the end 60% of the participants no longer qualified as insomniacs. And even 12 months later, the majority of benefits persisted.
For a long time dismissed as pseudo-science, researchers discovered that meditation can slow or even reverse cellular ageing. By protecting the so called telomeres caps on the ends of our chromosomes, meditation leads to significantly higher telomerase activity, which in turn is lined to ageing of cells.