The Science of Meditation

Reduced anxiety. Improved focus and efficiency. Lower susceptibility to emotional triggers. Equanimity in the face of physical pain and discomfort. Increased immunity. Slower ageing. A greater sense of overall wellbeing.

Until fairly recently, these were bold anecdotal claims made by meditation practitioners the world over. Today, the data are in to support them. It’s a resounding win for gurus, swamis, yogis and your quirky friend who’s been proselytising about the benefits of meditation with evangelical vigour.

Psychologist Daniel Goleman, Ph.D. and Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry Dr. Richard J. Davidson have been at the forefront of meditation research since they met at Harvard as graduate students in the early 70s. The fact that they are both seasoned meditators might rightly raise a red flag amongst skeptics, but they have been just as prolific at debunking claims as proving them.

Combining rigorous scientific testing with unique access to a wide range of meditators, Goleman and Davidson penned Altered Traits (Penguin Random House, 2018), a culmination of their life’s work and a harbinger of hope for Westerners requiring empirical evidence to adopt a meditation practice.

Their findings are supported by impressive technological advancements, including FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) – which measures areas of the brain in use through changes in blood flow to the respective regions – and EEG (electroencephalography), which records the electrical activity in the brain. While testing using this technology has sparked great optimism regarding the impact of meditation on the brain, more precise research is needed before the results regarding physiological changes can be conclusively confirmed. Nonetheless, the innovative testing protocols coupled with the most reputable published research articles have lead Goleman and Davidson to conclude that the data have reached critical mass. Here are a few of their findings…

Perhaps surprisingly, different types of meditation have significantly unique effects, with only some (nonetheless consequential) convergence.

LOVING-KINDNESS/COMPASSION MEDITATION

Loving-kindness/compassion meditation, for example, involves focusing benevolent and loving energy toward oneself and others. It enhances empathic concern and activates circuits for love and goodwill, increasing amygdala activation toward the hardships of others and preparing the practitioner to act when encountering such suffering. These brain and behavioural tendencies toward compassion strengthen with practice, with subjects reporting a reduction in intractable unconscious bias after just 16 hours of loving-kindness meditation.

The circuits involved in negative self-reflection also quieten down during loving-kindness meditation, holding true to the precept that the more we think of the wellbeing of others, the less we focus on ourselves.

Practising this form of meditation is even said to slow the ageing process by increasing the activity of telomerase - the enzyme associated with the deceleration of the age-related shortening of telomeres (the end caps of DNA strands). The longer the telomere, the longer the life span of that particular cell. The more telomerase, the better for health and longevity.

HOW TO PRACTISE LOVING-KINDNESS MEDITATION

1. Sit comfortably and close your eyes.

2. Take a few deep breaths, imagining these originating from your heart.

3. Start by generating loving-kindness for yourself, continuing to breathe ‘from the heart’ and repeating the mantra: “May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be free from pain and suffering. May I be at peace.”

4. When you are ready, think about the people closest to you, and evoke a sense of lovingkindness towards them. Change the mantra slightly to: “May they be happy. May they be healthy. May they be free from pain and suffering. May they be at peace.”

5. Next, move on to some people with whom you are acquainted but who you don’t count as friends or family. They could be anyone from co-workers to the barista at your local coffee shop. Imagine yourself sending them loving-kindness, using the same mantra as in the previous step.

6. Now it’s time to move onto the most important group - those to whom it may be more difficult to express love. These could include anyone you’re currently struggling with, those you feel may have wronged you in the past, or even leaders or other public figures with ideas with which you don’t agree. Use the same mantra you used for the other groups of people, spending as much time as you need to cultivate a sense of forgiveness, compassion and unconditional love.

7. Lastly, return to offering yourself good wishes as you did in the third step.

8. Before you open your eyes, take some time to simply sit in silence, focusing on your heart-centred breathing and enjoying the feeling of consciously generating love for yourself and others.

MBSR (MINDFULNESS-BASED STRESS REDUCTION)

A popular form of meditation studied by Goleman and Davidson is MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction), a formal eight-week programme. Novices in MBSR training showed significantly improved orienting - a component of selective attention that directs the mind to target only one among the virtually infinite array of sensory inputs. More simply put - the ability to focus on one thing while ignoring distractions. This proves that the neural circuitry for selective attention can be trained, and runs counter to conventional wisdom that attention is hardwired.

Other benefits of MBSR include a reduction in the suffering associated with chronic pain, as well as an improvement in the day-to-day management of stress-related disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Loneliness, which is ever present in our disconnected modern society, spurs higher levels of pro-inflammatory genes. MBSR not only lowers these levels, but is also said to reduce the feeling of loneliness.

A caveat explicitly expressed by MBSR founder Jon Kabat-Zinn is that continued practice is essential for all of these benefits to persist.

To learn more and find an MBSR course near you, visit www.mbsr-south.co.za.

VIPASSANA

Roughly translated as ‘insight’, vipassana is the oldest known Buddhist meditation practice. Although it has its roots in the religion, it can be practised without the religious ideologies prescribed by Buddhism. Focusing on the breath is the primary objective of vipassana, with a gradual cultivation of direct awareness over time.

Vipassana quietens the amygdala (the brain’s radar for threat), strengthening control of the prefrontal cortex over this emotional centre and reducing its paralysing effect on executive function. The improved sustained attention (or vigilance) cultivated by vipassana meditation reduces ‘attentional blink’, leading to a greater ability to notice the small signals to which so many of us have become insensitive.

Other reported benefits include better impulse control and improved working memory.

Meta-awareness – or the ability to notice when your mind has wandered or you’ve made a mistake - is also improved. This mental skill underpins a great deal of what makes us successful in the world, affecting everything from learning to recognising that we’ve had a creative insight and seeing a project through to completion.

Another interesting finding involves the reduction of anticipatory anxiety. After being told that they would be inflicted with a pain test in ten seconds’ time, advanced vipassana practitioners showed zero anticipatory anxiety, while non-meditators’ anxiety increased immediately, and persisted during and after the test. The meditators showed a sensory increase to the actual pain, but no emotional stress, and immediately returned to baseline after the test. During a stress test, the stress hormone cortisol produced by the adrenal glands was 13% lower in seasoned practitioners, indicating a strong ability to handle life’s difficulties with equanimity.

Visit www.pataka.dhamma.org to find out more about learning vipassana meditation at the South African centre in Worcester (about an hour and a half’s drive from Cape Town).

Goleman and Davidson’s research revealed many more noteworthy insights, the scope of which is too broad for the purposes of this article. I highly recommend reading Altered Traits, in which they outline how - through many hours of practice - the altered states of all types of meditation eventually evolve to become altered traits. The effortful becomes effortless, if you will.

Seasoned meditators are able to bring the transitory moments encountered by novices into their everyday existence. Brain images of these ‘Olympic-level’ meditators show reduced activity in the default mode network (DMN), from which most of our negative unconscious bias centering around ourselves emanates. Needless to say, lowered DMN activity is a vital sign of overall wellbeing. At the age of 50, these meditators sport brains that are seven and a half years younger than those of nonmeditators of the same age. Meditation slows brain atrophy. A phenomenal finding, if ever there was one.

Motivating as these conclusions may be, the advice of Sam Harris - neuroscientist, moral philosopher and friend of the authors – bears remembering as you consider adopting or deepening your own practice: “Don’t meditate because it’s good for you.” In his inimitable style, Harris outlines the deepest fundamental reason for meditating: simply put, it will make you a better person. A more attentive friend and loved one. This should surely be reason enough for us all (although the conclusive scientific evidence certainly doesn’t hurt).

By Quentin Crofford