February 20, 2016

How We Know For Sure That Meditation Changes our Brains.

thinking girl

So there’s a new study out that proves the benefits of meditation.

What’s different about this one?

For the first time, a control group receiving a placebo treatment was also included. (They were trained in general relaxation techniques and distracted from actually paying attention to what arises in the body and mind, while the other group were trained in mindfulness techniques and taught to notice all that arises within.)

Dr J David Creswell, in association with Carnegie Mellon University, has also specifically linked mindfulness meditation training with lowered Interleukin-6 (IL-6—an inflammatory health biomarker). Essentially, his study supports the claim that by practicing mindfulness techniques, as opposed to relaxation exercises, we alter connectivity patterns in the brain, resulting in improved health.

“We think that these brain changes provide a neurobiological marker for improved executive control and stress resilience, such that mindfulness meditation training improves your brain’s ability to help you manage stress, and these changes improve a broad range of stress-related health outcomes, such as your inflammatory health.”  ~Dr. Creswell

It’s good news to have another scientific experiment prove the benefits of this ancient practice.

But here’s the thing: I don’t care that much (and I’m a meditation teacher).

I didn’t start meditating because of what science says—I was chasing the spiritual benefits. It was anecdotal evidence around the benefits of the practice that drew me in. I wanted the promised higher states of consciousness. (I was actually hoping to achieve enlightenment.)

I was younger then and more naïve. More interested in the end-goal, with meditation being merely the tool by which to attain it.

But now, meditation is a highly valued part of my daily ritual—and not just because of the spiritual benefits.

We are multi-dimensional beings and what happens on the physical, mental and emotional levels impact on one another. We cannot keep them in separate compartments. Our bodies speak our minds; our suppressed emotions create physical dis-eases; finding calm within us helps our bodies to heal.

These are the things that scientific studies have been proving since the TM Foundation started funding research in the 1970’s. There is no doubt that they had a vested interest in the results of those studies—as do mindfulness organisations who are promoting studies today.

But that doesn’t mean the results aren’t valid.

Scientists are human beings and they have different opinions. If they wish to dispute the findings of a study, they will find a means to do so. As will each of us. We can find evidence to support anything we choose to believe—and so too can our ideological opponents.

So, we can choose to accept the outcome of studies or we can pick holes in them. And even with this new study, any skeptic (or even supporter) can pick it apart, as they would any other, if they were so inclined. As some of the commentators on this New York Times article point out, the sample is still small and the implication that a three day immersion without continued practice is sufficient for sustained effect is questionable.

(I tell all my students that meditation needs to be a daily practice—like washing, if we don’t do it every day (or most days, at least) we’ll start to smell. Like physical fitness, we need to maintain the practice to maintain the benefits.)

But here’s the real point I’m trying to make: we don’t need science to prove the benefits to us.

We don’t need science to explain to us how our digestive systems work to know that they work—we experience that ourselves everyday (hopefully).

And the best way to prove the benefits of meditation to our own wellbeing is to experience them first hand.

While there are common patterns and predictable effects to every cause, each person is affected in different ways and to different degrees by the same substances, experiences and environments.

If you and I take the same drug, we may react differently. With meditation, it is the same. Each of us will experience different benefits, over differing timelines, which will be impacted by a variety of factors, such as:

How stressful our life currently is.

Our current level of health, mentally and physically.

How much time we spend in meditation.

How frequently we meditate.

What technique we practice.

What our expectations are for our practice.

So, the only study that can reliably predict how meditation will benefit us is our own personal one.

As I already mentioned, I started out chasing enlightenment. But the spiritual benefits came slowly (and enlightenment still evades me). And yet, I’m still doing it. Why?

1. Because improved sleep was an immediate effect. From day one, I slept through the night, uninterrupted. And for the whole of my life, up until that point, I had never experienced that.

2. On top of that, lots of life-long physical ailments just quietly disappeared: frequent headaches, constipation as the norm, mild psoriasis during stressful periods, restless leg and others.

3. And, my tendency to easily lose the rag and bite somebody’s nose off was dialed way down. In fact, it’s now a remarkably rare occurrence (and I can usually quickly identify the reason why it happened).

If I never attain enlightenment, all of these benefits are more than worth 20 minutes of my time once or (better still) twice a day.

I’ll share another interesting (in my opinion) finding from my own personal study. Last year I let my evening meditation practice slip away. At first, I didn’t notice any major changes. And mentally and emotionally, I’m still functioning with a good degree of awareness.

Physically, however, some of the old issues are creeping back. My sleep patterns are becoming more disturbed and my right leg is becoming increasingly more restless in the evenings.

So, before the headaches make a reappearance, I’ve been prioritising my evening meditation once again. I’m not back into the daily routine yet, but I’m doing it several times a week—and I never miss my morning practice.

Of course it’s reassuring to have science back up our daily practices as being worth the time and energy. But reading those results is merely acquiring knowledge. Wisdom comes from the application of that knowledge.

And we can tune into our own inner wisdom any time, without knowing what science says, just by taking the time to sit with ourselves. If the potential benefits of meditation—on any (and all) levels—is of interest to you, then I say, f*ck what “science” says. Conduct your own experiment.



How to Meditate: FAQ for Beginners.

The Most Important Thing for Newbie Meditators to Know & Remember.

Mindfulness for Beginners: Dispelling 7 Myths of Meditation

Author: Hilda Carroll

Editor: Sara Kärpänen 

Photo: Tachina Lee / Unsplash 

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