BEING A JAIN, MEDITATION (DHYANA) HAS BEEN THE CORE practice of the Jain Philosophy. All the 24 Jain Tirthankaras practiced deep meditation and attained enlightenment. The entire sadhana of Lord Mahavir for twelve long years is based on the practice of deep meditation (dhyana) and relaxation (Kayotsarg).
In the same way, Buddhist monks for thousands of years have used meditation to attain the ultimate truth.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna talks about the importance of mediation and yoga and how it leads us to experience inner peace and joy.
So, Meditation has been an integral part of our culture and spirituality for thousands of years but somehow lost traction with passing times and got restricted to the realm of spiritual practitioners.
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The West Connection.
In the last 3 decades, meditation slowly and steadily started to penetrate the mainstream western culture. In fact, it is now investigated and recommended by neuroscientists, psychologists, psychotherapists, psychiatrists, and other health professionals.
The proof is the increase in the number of controlled and clinical trials. From just one scientific study between 1995-1997, clinical studies on meditation grew to a whopping 216 between 2013-2015.
Not so long-ago meditation centers were a rare phenomenon in western cities, but thanks to soaring of public interest in mindfulness meditation, now they are found in almost all major urban cities.
One big reason for this explosion is the availability of cutting-edge scientific tools and techniques of brain scanning. Various brain imaging techniques like EEG, PET, MRI, and fMRI facilitate direct and indirect scanning of the brain structure. This has opened the flood gates for understanding the meditation benefits for the brain.
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In this article, I have tried to marry this ancient eastern technique with some interesting and exciting scientific studies using modern technology.
At some point in the whole process, you may feel technically sucked and might not get a sense in one reading. If so, then just go ahead and read it twice or thrice, and believe me once you’re done, you’ll start seeing meditation through a different perspective.
And let me warn you, if you were looking for some motivation to begin meditation, but were unable to find one- this article will serve as your motivation. So, let’s begin!
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1. A Great Weapon for Neuroplasticity and to Keep Looking Young.
In a Landmark 2005 study, Dr. Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Psychology Professor at Harvard Medical School studied the brains of meditators and non-meditators to understand the benefits of meditation and mindfulness on the human brain. What she observed took her by surprise- that meditating can completely change your brain.
Now, backed by hundreds of studies, scientists agree that Meditation is the no 1 tool to alter your brain. It has become the No 1 choice of the neuroscientific community to upgrade the brain.
She found that meditation resulted in increased gray matter in those areas of the PFC (pre-frontal cortex) which are responsible for executive decision making, planning, logic, reasoning, working memory, and problem-solving. What it meant was that the PFC of meditators was relatively thicker than non-meditators and there was a direct correlation between frequency of meditation and thickness. In short, the more the meditators experience, the thicker their PFC.
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In another study by UCLA researchers, the brains of 50 people who had meditated regularly over the course of 20 years were compared with the brains of those who didn’t. Individuals in the group who meditated showed less decline in grey brain matter as they aged, but for those who did not meditate, it declined fast.
It’s a well-documented and known fact that our cortex shrinks as we get older – it’s harder to figure things out and remember things. But Dr. Sara Lazar found that in this one region of the prefrontal cortex, 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of Gray matter as 25-year-olds. That means Meditation prevents the PFC from shrinking and also keeps you young.
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2. A Great Gadget to Improve Decision-Making.
It became clear to Dr. Sara Lazar, that meditation activates your PFC, boosts brainpower by increasing Gray matter, makes PFC denser and thicker, enhances electrical activity making you more aware and conscious about your brain.
PFC is called by different names like CEO of the brain but since the brain is the CEO of the body, it is also called ‘CEO of the CEO.’
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Also called the control panel of the brain, emperor of the brain, and many more names, but all means the same- PFC is the region that is responsible for all the cognitive and executive functioning of the brain.
Among a host of executive functions that makes us what we are as humans is decision-making. Other examples of executive functions include Planning, judgment, problem-solving, self-control, logic, reasoning, and many more.
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Meditation impacting and upgrading the “CEO of the CEO” opens a whole new dimension of powerful benefits: better thinking, better decision-making, better judgment, better logic, better IQ and EQ, better mental health, more processing power, less stress, less anxiety, less depression, the list goes on.
Now just pause for a moment and reflect!
Isn’t these very things that are the cornerstones of success in life.
And guess what? You have always been thinking about meditation only as a tool for spiritual success.
I hope this will help you see meditation in a new light.
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3. A Great Way to Beat and Defeat Stress.
In 2011, Massachusetts General Hospital conducted a study to find out the effect of meditation on amygdala responses. 51 healthy adults between the age group of 25-55 years who had no prior experience in meditation volunteered to participate in this program.
The participants were subjected to 8 weeks of mindful and meditation training program.
During these 8 weeks, the participants were asked to meditate for an average of 20 minutes a day.
Before and after the experiment, participants underwent an fMRI scan to see the changes in the brain.
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A surprising discovery was waiting to be revealed. Meditation not only silenced the electrical signals in the amygdala region but dramatically decreased the size of the amygdala. In short, the amygdala had shrunk in volume.
Remember the 1989 classic Hollywood movie, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”
Well, the neuroscientists shouted, “Meditation, I Shrunk the Amygdala.”
And the amazing part was that this tremendous feat was achieved in just two months.
By the way, what is Amygdala?
I know it’s getting too technical, but hang on and continue reading. Your patience will surely pay off and you’ll pat yourself for reading this article till the end.
The amygdala is known as that part of the brain in the limbic system which is the seat of our fear and stress emotions. The amygdala is the brain’s threat detector and is primarily involved in the processing of emotions and memories associated with fear.
The main job of the amygdala which is the brain’s emotional center is to regulate the emotions of fear, anxiety, and aggression. When you perceive a threat or experience a stressful event, the amygdala gets triggered and activates the famous “Fight or Flight” response.
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Believe me, the results of this finding were transformational. Meditation can act as a light switch that can turn off the stress or the ‘fight or flight’ button, thus vaccinating ourselves to the harmful negative effects of stress on both physical and mental health.
Also, a growing body of evidence suggests that mindfulness or meditation training can help anxiety, chronic pain, addictions, and other disorders, but exactly how meditation affects these conditions is still researched.
Cortisol, the stress hormone, is the one chemical we want least in our body. It is health enemy no 1, as proven by scientists again and again. When we are stressed, our bodies produce cortisol in bulk.
In 2013, researchers at UC (University of California) Davis discovered a very powerful connection between meditation and cortisol, with remarkable results seen within only a few short weeks.
In another study by a researcher at the Rutgers University of New Jersey, discovered that meditators had a nearly 50% reduction in cortisol levels!
Luckily, scientists have found a very powerful solution. Meditation: great stress and anxiety buster.
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So, if you are looking to checkmate stress then all you need to do is to start meditating.
It is also a proven fact that the PFC is connected to the amygdala. Also proven is the fact that without the PFC, we will have very little control over our emotions.
In simple terms, whenever an unpleasant emotion takes over, we will act impulsively- quite similar to how animals act.
Meditation strengthens the connection between the PFC and amygdala, thus giving us better control over our emotions and feelings. This in turn will help us to become more patient, calm, and resilient.
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In another study, Dr. Sara Lazar took participants who had never meditated before and put them through an eight-week meditation program. After the end of the program, the brain volume of the participants was measured. Interestingly she observed thickening in some regions of the brain of the meditators.
She also found differences in brain volume in other regions of the brain. In the group that learned meditation, she observed thickening in four regions of the brain: The posterior cingulate cortex, temporoparietal junction (TPJ), Pons, and Hippocampus.
When it comes to Hippocampus another scientific study is worth understanding below.
4. A Great Tool to Improve Learning and Memory.
In this study in Italy, twenty-six people who had been practicing Vipassana Meditation (VM) for more than one year and twenty-nine people who had never meditated in their life were selected for the study. The meditators came from a Vipassana community located in Naples. All participants had been meditating in the last year for 1 hour or more, for at least five days a week.
By the way for those who don’t know what Vipassana is: VM is one of India’s most ancient techniques of mediation, which was rediscovered by Gautam Buddha more than 2600 years ago.
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Vipassana, which means to see things as they are is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. In the ancient language Pali, it means “introspection, observation, and understanding of reality as it is.”
The brain scans of the meditators showed increased cortical thickness in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the part of the limbic system that governs learning, cognition, memory, and emotional regulation and is extraordinarily susceptible to stress and stress-related disorders. Also, the right hippocampus of meditators was found to have a high degree of theta waves.
Increases in the theta waves bandwidth during meditative practice have been widely reported by many studies. In simple terms, when your brain processes new information, the synchronization of the information between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex happens mainly in the theta bandwidth which leads to information consolidation.
What is information consolidation?
Although the exact mechanisms are yet to be fully explored by researchers, learning and memory are often described in terms of three functions: Acquisition, Consolidation, and Retrieval.
Acquisition refers to the introduction of new information into the brain.
Consolidation represents the processes by which a memory becomes stable.
Retrieval refers to the ability to access the information (whether consciously or unconsciously) after it has been stored.
In plain and simple language, like an artist who molds clay, meditation molds and shapes the learning and memory center of our brain into something beautiful.
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5. A Great Pill to Improve Focus and Concentration.
In a 2011 interesting and exciting study published in the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Judson Brewer, professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine performed fMRI brain scans on experienced meditators to understand the impact of mediation on brain function and its connectivity.
fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) is a safe, non-invasive technique that measures oxygen levels in the brains of the participants, correlating oxygen concentration to brain activity; more active regions require more oxygen.
The researchers conducted fMRI on both experienced meditators and non-meditators as they practiced three types of meditation techniques: concentration (focus on breathing), LKM (loving-kindness meditation), and choiceless awareness.
Judson Brewer and his team found some interesting trends in the results.
First, they observed that experienced meditators showed deactivation and decreased activity in a part of the brain called default mode network (DMN).
What Is the Default Mode Network?
The DMN is a group of brain regions that gets activated when a person is not focussed on the outside world or not focussed on what is happening around them.
Research shows that the DMN is especially active when a person is awake but at rest and engages in activities such as daydreaming, thinking about the past or the future, mind-wandering. Other times when the DMN is active include when the person is thinking about the intentions or perspective of another person, thinking about themselves and planning for the future.
However, in a resting state, when a person is not busy in any demanding or externally oriented mental task, then the mind shifts into “default mode.”
Very recent research has begun to show links between activity in the DMN and mental health problems like anxiety, depression, autism, schizophrenia, and even the build-up of beta-amyloid plaques in Alzheimer’s disease.
This DMN on the other hand shows decreased activity or even deactivation when a person is focussed on a task or engaged in a particular task like paying attention or concentrating.
In short, DMN deactivation leads to less mind-wandering which means helping a person to remain more attentive. Being able to pay attention means more focus and concentration. These are the key skills that are essential for success in every area of life and one which we all desire so deeply.
Be honest! Are you not looking for something that helps you gain focus and concentration? Aren’t you?
So here it is? Meditation: a great tool to deactivate the DMN, lessen mind-wandering thus leading to significant improvement in your focus and attention.
In another exciting 2010 study which was published in “Science” entitled “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind,” found that participants daydreamed and their minds wander nearly 50 percent of the time during their waking hours, and doing so made them unhappy.
We all are aware of the harsh reality that our minds wander mostly towards negative things that makes us unhappy. Thus, assuming that, “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” it is easy to understand the power of meditation in reducing daydreaming and mind-wandering on mental and emotional health.
In 2015, Thupten Jinpa Langri, a Tibetan Buddhist scholar and English translator to the Dalai Lama since 1985, co-authored a study titled “A wandering mind is a less caring mind.” He found that reducing mind-wandering through meditation was linked with increased caring behavior, both for oneself and for others.
A Bonus Tip for Smokers.
In yet another study, Dr. Judson Brewer took on subjects who wanted to quit smoking and who had tried unsuccessfully 5 to 6 times before. He gave them mindfulness training and to his surprise meditation was able to help these individuals quit smoking when all other methods failed.
By reading this blog till the end it’s quite clear that you’re seriously interested and thinking of practicing meditation. Believe me, you’re right in your thinking and you have come to the right place. But, though the benefits of meditation on the brain are abundant, unless you actually sit down and start doing it, you won’t feel the change. So, what are you waiting for? Starting tomorrow, make meditation a part of your daily mental hygiene and personal hygiene like brushing your teeth or taking a bath.
This is just the beginning and very soon you’ll see regular articles on mediation on my blog. So, stay tuned and connected.
Over to you now. Let me know in the comments box below, your meditation experience If any.