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The Science Behind Meditation

Updated: Sep 19, 2022

I just spoke to a long time family friend from India who has been a monk for thirty years. We call him "Swami." I always notice that after I speak with him I feel more relaxed and peaceful. We usually laugh. Swami exudes a certain calmness that is noticeable to all. Why are monks calmer and more even keeled than the average person? They spend extended time in daily meditation.

Can meditation really change the brain and personality? As promised months ago, here’s some science behind the benefits of meditation. There have been many studies of subjects who engage in mindfulness meditation, looking at the effects of meditation on the brain, using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans. One fMRI study detected changes in brain activity in the amygdala part of the brain in subjects who meditated. This area of the brain, related to fight or flight, appeared to shrink. The changes held steady even when the people were no longer meditating. Before and after scans were done over two months. Even during everyday tasks, the changes to the brain held. Another study using an fMRI showed that the prefrontal cortex part of the brain of subjects who meditated had actually thickened. This thickening is related to increased intellectual ability. Meditation can make you smarter! What researchers have found is that the brain responds to activities that we do. The more we practice something, the more that region of the brain gets developed. When you repeat an activity, related neural connections are strengthened and this develops the associated regions of the brain. Meditation appears to increase gray matter density in the hippocampus and other frontal brain regions. This helps with learning, cognition and memory. Also, in subjects who meditate there is an increase in the anterior insula and cortical thickness. This helps cognitive function, attention and self awareness. Meditation also deactivates the sympathetic nervous system which is the fight or flight response. In addition, meditation turns on the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows us to rest and relax. I practice IAM meditation.

There has been some research about this specific meditation practice, which is taught all over the world for free. A scientific study of subjects who practiced the IAM meditation regularly was done. The IAM technique was shown to decrease levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol after 48 hours and onwards. In fact this decrease was sustained for eight months. Another study was done using the IAM with subjects who were were divided into two groups: short term meditators and longer-term meditators. The short term meditators had taken five classes and practiced the IAM technique. Compared to the control group, the short term meditators showed anxiety and depression states significantly decreasing. Also the longer-term meditators (who had meditated for more than four years) showed an increase in GABA plasma levels, versus the control group. This GABA increase is good for many aspects of health.

Swami once told me that in the West, more than the East people ask, “Why?” about so many things. Fellow Westerners, you may ask “Why meditate?" That’s why I wrote this blog. I hope it inspires you to try it! The research I’m referencing comes from the west (Harvard and University of Washington), as well as the East (India). Even the Dalai Llama has been involved in research on the benefits of meditation and he encourages serious scientific inquiry. I think we can all learn from one another!

Title of paper: Effects of Integrated Amrita Meditation Technique on Anxiety, Depression, and Plasma Neurotransmitters on a Healthy Population: A Randomized Controlled Trial Followed by a Case-Control Study Authors: Montes, Balakrishnan, Gopalakrishnan

Title: When Science Meets Mindfulness

Author: Powell Title: How Meditation Affects Your Brain and Boosts Well-Being Author: Boynton (UW Department of Medicine)

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