“Meditation brings wisdom; lack of meditation leaves ignorance. Know well what leads you forward and what holds you back; choose the path that leads to wisdom.”
As of 2002, in the United States alone, it is estimated that over 18 million people (about eight percent of the entire population) practice(s) meditation—a technique where an individual uses mindfulness to achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm state of being. Today, the figures are innumerable. This ancient practice has its roots in Eastern philosophies which have existed for over 5,000 years and has since garnered hundreds of millions of practitioners worldwide.
When we talk about mindfulness, it’s important, ironically, to keep in mind what that actually means. To be aware of one’s own mindfulness is a form of practicing the very concept. In this case, mindfulness is all about focusing one’s attention on the present moment rather than on the stressors of life such as the past, our obligations, our mistakes, etc.
Anyone who practices meditation/mindfulness will enthuse about its benefits and their own success stories. Western medicine, however, is now finally verifying these claims. What we have is a melding of science and philosophy for the greater good. What a time to be alive!
Let’s discuss five ways meditation improves brain function.
#1: Meditation and the Aging Brain
A recent study by the UCLA found that the brains of those who meditate regularly suffer significantly less loss of brain mass than those who don’t. Of course, the brain will naturally deteriorate over time but the rate of deterioration is much less when the mind is regularly “exercised” through meditation.
As we age, our health concerns shift to matters of the mind. After all, a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Unfortunately, many people suffer from diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. Although science has yet to come up with a cure, meditation offers many benefits for supplemental treatment and prevention. Some points worth noting:
Meditation increases protective tissues in the brain.
The calming effects of meditation reduce stress, thus lessening the risk of stress-related Alzheimer’s.
Feelings of loneliness and isolation can be greatly reduced through meditation.
Cortisol, a stress hormone, is known to be reduced when a person meditates. Elevated levels of cortisol lead to an increased risk of developing dementia.
A simple way to practice mindfulness is to focus on one’s own breathing. When we feel stressed, let’s take a moment to inhale and exhale with emphasis on releasing our stress and tension. In with the good, and out with the bad.
#2: Meditation and the Wandering Mind
Life can be stressful—plain and simple. We often have so many things going on at once that we may find it difficult to focus on a simple task or to even relax. With meditation, we can use our consciousness to redirect our attention to where it is needed, whether that be in the body or in the mind. Yale University, in fact, conducted a study on mind-wandering and meditation; the correlation between the two proved that mindful meditation reduces activity in the part of the brain responsible for “wandering.”
A seasoned meditator can still become distracted, of course, but the rewired neuropathways of the brain make it much easier to “snap back” to reality, the present moment. Psychologists suggest that people with wandering minds tend to be less happy in life. To remedy that, here’s a simple meditation technique to practice focus:
- Find a comfortable seat, whether that be on the floor or in a chair.
- Begin to notice the breath. Inhale and exhale slowly.
- Feel the rhythmic rise and fall of your chest as you breathe, breathing deeper each time.
- If the mind begins to wander, acknowledge it before gently redirecting focus.
- After a couple of moments (or however long you need), take three huge breaths.
- Exhale slowly, and open your eyes.
The ease and simplicity of this technique makes it ideal for anywhere and any time.
#3: Depression and Anxiety
The statistics of Americans suffering from depression or anxiety are at an all-time high with numbers totaling millions. The prevalence of mental illness seems to be on the rise, so much so that the statistics worldwide total roughly 300 million people. Although meditation is not a cure for mental illness, it certainly can help alleviate the symptoms.
A study conducted by John Hopkins University concluded that there are, in fact, mental benefits gained from meditation. Researchers compared several sample groups to determine what benefits, if any, a meditation program had on the symptoms/severity of their depression. The results were astounding. Meditation scored 0.3. Although this may seem like a low figure, keep in mind that the efficacy of antidepressants is also 0.3.
Although meditation greatly helps reduce the symptoms of mental illness, it’s certainly no substitute for professional medical care. Consult with a physician before starting any new regimens to see if they’re right for you.
“If I had not been already been meditating, I would certainly have had to start. I’ve treated my own depression for many years with exercise and meditation, and I’ve found that to be a tremendous help.”
– Judy Collins
#4: Changes in Brain Volume
The brain is the third largest organ in the human body. It is also one of the most important for the sole reason that it controls everything else in the body. Without the brain, there would be no organism; we would cease to exist. As we’ve discussed, the brain is positively affected by meditative practices. A study by Harvard University revealed that an eight-week meditation program increased cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory.
Conversely, and also surprisingly, this meditation study also concluded that certain parts of the brain responsible for fear and anxiety (mainly the amygdala) actually decrease(s) in volume, thus resulting in reduced negative emotions.
When the brain changes for the better, so too does our self-perception. We begin to feel better with this newfound alignment between brain and body. Yoga is a great way to practice meditation while also releasing feel-good endorphins and maintaining fitness.
#5: Immediate Effects
Just as the cessation of smoking offers immediate benefits, so too does beginning a mindfulness journey. Scholars have found that mindfulness training programs improved test scores and helped students focus better in a classroom setting. The potential this information holds is astounding. Enhancing cognitive function and increasing one’s attention span are just two of the multitude of effects changing one’s mindset can have on a person.
Just imagine the potential benefits science has yet to discover. Start your journey today and find out how meditation can help you! Activities such as word searches, sudoku, and other puzzles are great ways to begin practicing mindfulness.
We here at iGalen sincerely hope that this article will inspire positive changes in the lives of our readers. If you have been waiting for a sign to make a change, this is it.
As always, be sure to share this article with your friends and loved ones so that they too might benefit from these tips.
Here’s to your health!