Table of Contents
- 1 Two Opposing Views?
- 2 The World We Adore is Depressed!
- 3 Being Zen
- 4 Harvard is Curious, Should You Be Curious Too?
- 5 The Amygdala: The Almond Shaped Emotions Processor
- 6 Meditation Physically Changes The Brain!
- 7 Tai Chi For the Elderly
- 8 Relapse No More!
- 9 Moving Beyond Depression
- 10 Meditation Relieves Pain
- 11 Meditation Halves The Risk of Heart Attacks
- 12 Meditate Your Cold Away
- 13 Meditation Changes Your Genes (DNA)
- 14 Meditation Strengthens Your Immune System
- 15 Meditation Might Make You Smarter
- 16 A Word of Caution
- 17 The Final Word
Two Opposing Views?
It is a popular notion in the scientific community that humans lack free will and are only misguided by the illusion of it. It is believed we are made up of tiny atoms that make our bodies as much as they make the stars in the sky. Imprisoned by scientific laws and subject to our DNA & the biochemical reactions in our bodies, our brains and bodies shape our lives.
A popular and contradictory view is one preached by religious and spiritual communities. They propose the existence of a consciousness that dwells within and without our bodies. It is the prime mover that shapes our lives and our bodies.
This aim of this article is to marry the two views backed by latest scientific research. We will present a case for how meditation (an exercise of the mind) can physically shape and change our brains, bodies, and DNA. These have countless benefits in alleviating symptoms of depression and anxiety, relieving subjective experience of pain, boosting immunity, improving focus and attention; all of which can improve overall health and wellbeing.
The World We Adore is Depressed!
The world we live in is not too distant from how the dystopian writers imagined it. We live in a cesspool of social pressures that breed insecurities which result in undesirable effects in our subjective experience of life.
The world has never been this depressed. A World Health Organisation (WHO) report found that around 300 million people around the world are suffering from depression. Hence, curing and managing depression has been a key focus area for the scientific community and pharmaceutical companies. An article in Businesswire wrote that the global antidepressants market is at about 11 Billion USD! Clearly, depression and related diseases are a problem that carry a heavy health and economical burden on society. Here are some more stats to paint a vivid picture:
[Based on multiple sources]
Given the importance of this illness, all options must be explored to improve the mental wellbeing of those who suffer. We are starting to discover that the ancient practice of Meditation may have surprisingly positive effects.
For thousands of years, people have practised meditation. There are religious and non-religious methods by which people meditate. Its positive effects have been discussed plenty socially through anecdotal references and via self-help “gurus”. However, it is only now that the scientific community has taken it upon itself to better understand the effects of meditation on the body and especially in the brain. In this article, we will journey through all the latest scientific studies that have explored how and if meditation can literally change the structures of our brains, our DNA and improve our health. Here’s an overview of the currently studied positive effects of meditation.
Possible Benefits of Meditation
- Improved Attention & Focus
- Mitigates Anxiety
- Improves Mental Wellbeing
- Helps Cure Depression
- Strengthens Immune System
- Increases Grey Matter in Brain
- Alleviates Pain
- Improves Heart Health
- Prevents Inflammatory Diseases
- Changes DNA
- Strengthens & Changes Brain Structures
Harvard is Curious, Should You Be Curious Too?
Harvard is the epitome of excellence in higher education and research. Recently, several studies and clinical trials have been carried out that have explored how a mindfulness-based meditation approach can be used to treat and manage depression. Benjamin Shapero, an instructor at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital’s (MGH) Depression Clinical and Research Program is working with Gaelle Desbordes, who is an instructor in radiology at HMS and a neuroscientist at MGH’s Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and they have found some amazing results.
So, without throwing a lot of medical jargons at you, we will delineate simple steps that show what their team tried and tested. Have a look…
The Harvard Meditation Research Study
- Two Groups Of Patients: Control (Does Not Meditate) | Experimental (Undergoes Meditation)
- fMRI Scan of Both Groups (Brain Scans Based on Emotional Stimulus)
- 8 Week Mindfulness Meditation Course (For Experimental Group)
- fMRI Scan of Both Groups (Brain Scans Based on Emotional Stimulus)
- Compared Results of Both Groups
Here is the detailed version. An fMRI scan not only takes a picture of your brain, as an MRI would do, it also records brain activity during the scan. In 2012, Desbordes showed that changes in brain activity last even when people are not meditating (those who practice meditation). Essentially, the effects of meditation on the brain are long-lasting. But what changes did this Harvard research studied exactly?
The Amygdala: The Almond Shaped Emotions Processor
The Amygdala is the part of the brain that is responsible for emotions processing and memory. A highly active amygdala would result in a person experiencing high symptoms of depression and stress.
Stress is the body’s response to a “Fight or Flight” situation and results in unwanted associated symptoms like headaches, upset stomach etc. The Relaxation Response is the opposite of the Fight or Flight response wherein the body secretes hormones that put us in a deep state of relaxation by engaging a part of our nervous system.
Essentially, Desbordes and her team aimed to test if increased body awareness in the moment (interoception) can help participants break the cycle of self-rumination. It is extremely difficult for depressed patients to break from the cycle of self-rumination and let go of obsessive thoughts.
The results were promising. The group that received the 8-week mindfulness meditation therapy showed relatively inactive amygdala in response to emotional images. This suggests that the art of mindful meditation allowed people to detach from strong negative emotions relatively easily overcoming depression symptoms. Here is an image from the study itself
Source: Harvard Gazette
Meditation Physically Changes The Brain!
The aforementioned study is just one example of how meditation brings about physical changes in your brain. The number of studies exploring the effects of meditation has increased significantly. The Harvard Gazette in a story mentioned that from 11 clinical studies from 2002-2006, there were an astounding 216 studies done from 2013-2015. The number has only increased since then and a lot of meaningful insights have been discovered. These studies have shown preliminary results that suggest meditation can change the following parts of the brain:
Meditation Changes These In The Brain
- Amygdala [Emotions Processing]
- Cerebral Cortex [Stress Related Areas]
- Hippocampus [Learning & Memory]
- Prefrontal Cortex [Attention control]
- Parietal Lobes [Attention control]
- Limbic System [Process Emotions]
- Anterior Insula [Brings Emotions into Conscious Awareness]
A research study published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging by a team led by Harvard-affiliated researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital marveled at the brain’s plasticity (ability to be easily shaped). They have reported results in this study that document how meditation has produced changes over time in the brain’s grey matter.
Grey matter is an extremely important part of your central nervous centre. It consists most of the brain’s neuronal cell bodies and is responsible for important functions including muscle control, sensory perception, memory, seeing, hearing, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control.
Sara Lazar, a senior author of this study describes how after 8-weeks of mindfulness meditation (focusing on awareness of sensation, state of mind and feeling in a non-judgemental way) participants’ MRI scans showed increased grey matter in the hippocampus (important for memory & learning) and other structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.
Another study authored by Shirley Telles and team published in the Depression Research & Treatment journal explored how meditation can be used to manage mental health disorders resulting from trauma. While there are several substitute treatments like medicine etc. they bear undesirable effects, unlike Yoga and meditation.
Their research found similar results that confirmed Zen meditation causes changes in the amygdala.
This results in increased serotonin levels (a chemical that contributed to wellbeing and happiness) & dopamine (a chemical responsible for concentration, motivation, euphoria etc.). Furthermore, changes in another neurotransmitter GABA (regulates communication between brain cells) improved the condition of PTSD patients. After meditations participants reported reduced level of stress, improved mood and other symptoms related to anxiety.
Tai Chi For the Elderly
As we grow older, the grey matter in our brain deteriorates. It is a natural process that eventually leads to cognitive impairment and other decreased mental functions. While this is a natural process that we cannot escape entirely, the latest study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology might have provided some hope.
Researchers from the School of Psychology and Cognitive Science from East China Normal University found that a Chinese meditation technique called Tai Chi can over time reduce grey matter atrophy and thereby achieve successful ageing for elders. Their research showed that experienced meditators had higher GMV (Grey Matter Volume) of the thalamus and the hippocampus. Their research also revealed that high GMV results in improved emotional stability.
Our advice? Start meditation today so that when you are older, you are at least relatively better off. Our brain is the most important tool that deserves exercise much like our body to stay healthy and function optimally.
Another study published in PLoS One Journal by Gao-Xia Wei and found that Tai Chi meditation also affected the following areas in the brain:
- Precentral Gyrus [Muscle Control]
- Insula Sulcus [Emotions]
- Middle Frontal Sulcus [Semantic Processing]
- Superior Temporal Gyrus [Sensory Processing]
- Medial Occipito-Temporal Sulcus [Reading]
- Lingual Sulcus [Vision & Word Processing]
You needn’t concern yourself with terminology. All you need to know is that researchers in this PLoS One Study have successfully shown that Tai Chi meditation strengthens important parts of your brain and changes them physically.
It has long been known that physical activities and events can shape our brain. Proofs of the ability of purely mental activities to change the structure of our brains is truly a remarkable feat and deserve attention. Several studies point towards only one direction, meditation can have positive effects by literally changing the structure of our brain and even our neural connectivity.
Relapse No More!
Did You Know?
As per an article published in the Scientific American:
- 60% – With depressive episode will relapse
- 60% – 90% relapsed once will relapse again
- 95% – Three or more episodes will relapse
So far, we have seen how mindfulness meditation can change the physical structure of our brain and alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Mindfulness meditation helps change dysfunctional thoughts and prevents problematic emotions and behaviour. However, another common problem with patients suffering from depression is a relapse.
Preventing relapse is a crucial challenge for therapists. An article in the Scientific American revealed that up to 60% of those who have had one depressive episode will have one or more additional ones. They also revealed that those who have relapsed once, 60-90% of them will have further episodes. Finally, people who have experienced three or more depressive episodes, 95% of those will relapse! These are insanely high numbers and represent a huge challenge.
John Teasdale, a psychologist from the Medical Research Council (MRC) in Cambridge published a study in 2000 that concluded the potency of mindfulness as a preventive in patients who have relapsed three or more times. In 2004, the same study was replicated with a larger sample set by the renowned psychologist S. Helen Ma who deduced similar results.
People who have experienced three or more episodes of relapse form strong associations between ordinary negative moods and depressive thoughts. They cannot break away from their obsessive negative thoughts and anything can trigger a full-blown depressive episode. Helen found that with these people, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy can be effective.
Moving Beyond Depression
We have clearly understood that regular meditation can reduce stress, improve attention & focus, bring emotional stability, reduce anxiety, manage depression and even change the very physical structure of our brain. However, mindfulness meditation has benefits beyond the brain that affect our biological health. The infographic shows all the currently researched and possible beneficial effects of meditation on the body.