meditation challenge icon

The most important thing,
is to remember the most important thing.

30 Day Meditation Podcast (2 of 4)

As we enter week 2 of our 30 Day Meditation Challenge, I’m curious as to what science has to say about meditation. What has modern technology been able to prove? As I reached out to seasoned meditation practitioners to help along our meditation journey, I came to value the expertise and scientific understanding of Diana Winston.

After 30 years of mindfulness training, Diana Winston is now working with UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center as the Director of Mindfulness Education. Her goal is to ultimately cultivate a more peacefulness compassionate society through mindfulness meditation training. In our conversation, she shares the benefits from her own experience, how meditation affects the brain, and how to further cultivate mindfulness regardless of one’s beliefs or background. Enjoy.

Listen to Podcast on iTunes

Observe this image:

Mindfulness Image

Feel the sense of ease, relaxation and connectedness the picture above evokes? That’s your frontal lobe lighting up. The same part of the brain that is stimulated and strengthened during meditation.

We unknowingly cultivating mindfulness all the time. Another time you’ve experienced the benefits of mindfulness is that epiphany moment in the shower. Research shows our creativity and lateral thinking increases when we’re doing something that allows us to tune-in to what our senses are experiencing in this moment. Other examples of this would be practicing music, surfing, and stacking a house of cards.

The Science Behind Meditation

Though most the research on meditation has been conducted in just the past few decades, there appear to be a reoccurring findings. The most exciting to me is that a systematic training of the mind ultimately helps us tap into what we most cherish.

Short Term Meditation Effects on the Brain

Though you may notice results from just a single meditation session, this study shows through MRI scanning that the following physical changes in the brain occur after just eight weeks of meditating 30 minutes a day:

  • The pre-frontal cortex becomes thicker – associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making.
  • The growth of the posterior cingulate – involved in mind wandering, and self-relevance.
  • A strengthened the left hippocampus – assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation.
  • Increased activity in the temporo parietal junction – associated with perspective taking, empathy, and compassion.
  • An increase of pons –where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.
  • A shrinking of the amygdala – the “fight or flight” part of the brain associated with anxiety, fear and stress in general.

Who would have thought that thoughlessness could have such a huge effect on our thoughts!?

Long-term Meditation Effects on the Brain

A study by looking at long term meditators vs a control group found long-term meditators have an increased amount of gray matter in the insula (a region of the brain deep in the cerebral cortex) and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex. Which makes sense because when you’re mindful, you’re often paying attention to your immediate senses: breathe, heart, sounds, and other present experiences while shutting cognition down.

This study also found long-term meditators had more gray matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory, executive decision making and contains most of the dopamine-sensitive neurons in the brain associated with reward, attention, short-term memory, planning, and motivation.

A study by the General Hospital Psychiatry (among many others) concluded that stress reduction based on mindfulness meditation can have long-term beneficial effects in the treatment of people diagnosed with stress and anxiety disorders.

Further Research on the Meditation

Research on Meditation Wikipedia – “concerns research into the psychological and physiological effects of meditation using the scientific method of the western tradition.”

Headspace Science – “Regular mindfulness practice, through meditation, is an effective treatment for stress, worry, lack of focus, relationship problems, addictions and more. It leads to peace of mind and wellbeing, greater focus and creativity and better relationships.”

UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Reseach Center – “Research has shown mindfulness to address health issues such as lower blood pressure and boost the immune system; increase attention and focus, including aid those suffering from ADHD; help with difficult mental states such as anxiety and depression, fostering well-being and less emotional reactivity; and thicken the brain in areas in charge of decision making, emotional flexibility, and empathy.”

Diana Winston’s book, Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness – “an all-in-one guide for anyone interested in bringing mindfulness to daily life as a means of enhancing well-being.”

The Best Mindfulness Meditation Practice

This research shows us the more meditation is practiced, the more benefits there are to be found. Though like Diana mentioned, the best type and length of meditation is the one that you’re going to do consistently.

We’ve learned is that meditation strengthens the mind like physical exercise strengthens muscles. And just like an exercise routine can vary, a mindfulness meditation can change day-to-day. Some days 30 minutes. Some days five minutes. The key is to give yourself any amount of time every day. Doing so requires some experimenting to find the right balance for you.

I previously tried meditating too much too early and burned out and didn’t meditate again for another couple months. What I’ve found works best for me is meditating 10-20 in the morning, then again during the afternoon/evening.

meditation not just for monks

What about you?

Have you had experience with meditating? Or are interested in trying? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below :)