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Unpacking the Science of Meditation

Is it any wonder that meditation is becoming an important skill in modern times? Consider the science that increasingly links meditation with optimal well-being.

In modern times meditation has moved from the cave to the laboratory. By investigating both experienced and novice meditators, scientists are now documenting the body’s response to meditation and mind training. Their findings provide further support to the age-old wisdom, East and West: healthy mind—healthy body.

From its earliest sources the medical tradition has recognized the role of both mind and biology in health and disease. However, the focus has often been on either mind or body. Rarely has a balance been achieved. We are now emerging from a centuries old western emphasis on biology. Through the perspective of modern science, we are finally exploring the role of meditation and mind training in health and disease. What follows is a brief overview of the science of meditation. My aim is to encourage, inspire, and support your efforts.

Let’s begin in 1956 when the Canadian physiologist Hans Selye published his seminal work, The Stress of Life. His research served as a bridge between the fields of psychology, physiology, and pathology. He observed that the body, when subject to psychological stress, responds with a series of predictable physiologic changes which initiate immediate and long-term changes in biology. The seemingly intangible mind, he demonstrated, can alter our body, short and long-term.

In the 1970s Elmer and Alyce Green studied the capacity of skilled Yogis to voluntarily control physiology.  In the years following they developed the clinical field of biofeedback, demonstrating that a broad spectrum of physiologic functions, previously considered unresponsive to self-regulation, could in fact be controlled through mental training. These include: heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature, muscle tension, bowel and bladder motility, and brain waves. Biofeedback was the first modern therapeutic application of the mind’s capacity to regulate the body.

Robert Ader at the University of Rochester and Candace Pert at Georgetown University further extended this work. Ader demonstrated the capacity of the mind to regulate immune function, and Pert identified a group of natural chemicals called neuropeptides that are intermediaries between mind and immune system. These neuropeptides circulate throughout the body, orchestrating a complex and far-reaching physiological response to stress and other emotional states. This area of investigation, called psychoneuroimmunology, provides scientific evidence that our immune system is also subject to voluntary self-regulation.

More recently, the research of Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin expanded this approach to investigate the role of mind in enhancing well-being. He identified the pre-frontal cortex as the specific area of the brain that becomes activated in states of well-being. Working with long-term meditators, he demonstrated that inner development, achieved through meditative practice, resulted in increased levels of well-being that could be measured both objectively in brain activity and subjectively in enhanced states of emotional well-being.

Sara Lazar at Harvard Medical School went further. Lazar’s group found actual physical changes in the brains of experienced meditation practitioners. She observed increased brain tissue in brain areas important for learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. The importance here is the discovery that meditation can lead to structural change in the brain as well as physiologic change.

Current research in the fields of genetics and epigenetics is now demonstrating the possibility that mental training may also have an impact on how and which genes are expressed in the body, and on longevity itself. This subtle research is exploring the role of mind in regulating the core blueprint of life.

Although science develops slowly, the direct benefits of meditation and mind training can be experienced quite quickly. Within weeks of beginning practice, individuals report diminished emotional reactivity, greater ease and peacefulness during daily activities, and improved relationships. These changes are the basis of corresponding changes in the body that can be both measured and documented. These mind/body benefits expand and stabilize with practice.

From this brief review of the science of meditation it should now be evident that there is an increasingly scientific basis for choosing to develop a regular meditation practice.

If there was a pill that could offer as many benefits without any side effects or cost, we would all be taking it, and right away. So let’s get started with the proper instruction and guidance.

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Written by Elliott Dacher MD

Explore Wellness in 2021