In September 2018 the paperback version of The Science of Meditation: How to change your Brain, Mind and Body was published, distilling the latest scientific research on meditation, and clearly explaining what the evidence shows that it can, or cannot, do for us.
Written by leading neuroscientist Dr Richard Davidson and science journalist and author of the best-selling book “Emotional Intelligence”, Daniel Goleman, this book neatly separates fact from fiction at a time when there are almost daily articles published on how meditation can change our lives.
The authors only take into account the most rigorous evidence, based on research with the most robust methodology, where experiments involving meditation compare results to results of “other comparable activities”. They also show how different types of meditations produce different effects.
The revelations are significant. In short:
The more we practice meditation, the more profound and lasting the benefits will be, resulting in changes in our very nature.
In this blog we give a snapshot of some of the findings.
Even small amounts of meditation can develop positive changes in our state, but without continued practice these states are likely to be short-lived
Mindfulness meditation practices being fully present in the moment, to all thoughts, emotions and sensations as they occur and pass, with the aim of developing greater insight into the nature of our experience.
- Even a beginner meditator’s brain shows less reaction to stress
- 8 minutes of mindfulness meditation reduces mind wandering – for a while
- 10 hours of mindfulness over a 2 week period results in better focus, less mind wandering, improved working memory – and it led to substantial improved scores on graduate school exam in a major piece of research
Loving-Kindness meditation (or Compassion meditation), practices extending good wishes and understanding to all beings, and to ourselves.
- In as little as 8 hours: we become less “biased” towards ourselves or specific others
- In 16 hours – we are generally more empathetic to everyone
Mindfulness-Based-Cognitive-Therapy, the 8 week course combining mindfulness and cognitive behaviour therapy, is the most well-researched form of meditation.
- MBCT been conclusively shown to be as effective as anti-depressant medication for recurrent depression, without any of the side-effects
With more hours of meditation, these temporary positive states become lasting personality traits
A beginner may practice hours, days, weeks of meditation over a certain time and experience some of the aforementioned benefits. For longer-term meditators, defined in the book as those who have practiced over 1,000 hours of meditation, the benefits become a more habitual part of how we are in the world – they evolve from temporary states to lasting traits.
So for instance,
there is a gradual evolution from “I feel calmer after meditation” to “I am generally a calmer person”.
- are less reactive to stress, and recover more quickly from stress
- experience less “stickiness” of thoughts and feelings –self-focussed thoughts and feelings that arise in the mind have much less “grab” and are less likely to hijack attention
- have slower breath rate – slower metabolic rate
- have better attention – there is stronger selective attention, less distractedness, greater ease in focussing, and less mind wandering
Signs of meditative states in long-term meditators continue during sleep.
Long-term meditators of compassion meditation have overall stronger empathy and are more likely to act to help others.
Intensive retreats magnify the effects of meditation
Evidently, periods dedicated to intense meditation practice magnifies the effects of meditation. Silent retreats, vipassana treats, or if we have the time then 3 months or more on retreat – produce lasting and profound changes.
- The enzyme telomerase, which slows cellular ageing, increases after 3 months of intensive practice of mindfulness and loving kindness
- A day-long retreat enhances the immune system
- All the beneficial effects of meditation are much more pronounced with periods of intense meditation such as on retreat
Monks’ and yogis’ brains are different from most people
The most striking revelations in the book are about how the brains of Olympian meditators – monks and yogis who have an average of 27,000 ours of meditation practice – are significantly different from everyone else.
From what we can see of the Olympian meditators’ brains:
- they can withstand higher levels of pain and have less reaction to it
- they can stop and start meditative states in seconds
- the most seasoned of them show effortlessness in meditation
- their brains seem to age more slowly compared to brains of other people their age – the book tells the story of Mingyur Rinpoche with 62,000 hours of meditation – he went on retreat for another 4.5 years, and when he returned his brain resembled the brain of a 33 year old when he was 41
- during compassion meditation, their brains and hearts couple in ways not seen in other people…and their circuitry for compassion can jump up almost 800% (9 times) compared to their resting state
- yogi’s brain states at rest resemble brain states of other while they meditate – the states have become traits
One particularly interesting finding from the study of monk’s brains during meditation is that their brains show large gamma waves in synchrony among far-flung brain regions – a brain pattern not seen before in anyone.
Gamma waves indicate an “awakeness”, a special state of consciousness, when our different brain regions fire in harmony, like during moments of insight.
Most people will only have gamma waves very briefly, for example when we’ve solved a problem we’ve been grappling with, and when all our sensory inputs come together in harmony. The brainwaves of long-term meditators, however, show gamma all the time as a lasting, everyday trait. What does this feel like?
“The yogis themselves have described it as a spaciousness and vastness in their experience, as if all their senses were wide open to the full, rich panorama of experience.”
Why meditate? More calm, more composure, less stress, better focus, improved memory, greater empathy, greater resilience – there is substantial evidence for all these outcomes of meditation. One could argue though that these are fantastic side effects of meditation. The enhanced, effortless and harmonious awareness, the continuous flow of “flashes of insight” indicated by the prevalence of gamma brain waves among the greatest meditators in the world – is perhaps the most alluring reason. This is the “greater awareness” that many refer to as the original aim of meditation.