Monday 7 March 2011

Meditation research survey

A recent New Scientist article ("Everybody say om", 8th January 2011) published a survey article on the state-of-the-art research into meditation. It was all good news for meditators as the article identified many scientifically provable benefits of meditation, and did not report on any downsides (although to be totally unbiased, that's not to say there aren't any). Unfortunately the article is behind a pay wall, so you won't be able to read it unless you have a subscription, or buy a back issue. To give you a flavour I will therefore try to summarise it, and pick out some juicy points for you, beginning with this quote:
"A real scientific picture of meditation is now coming together. It suggests that meditation can indeed change aspects of your psychology, temperament and physical health in dramatic ways. The studies are even starting to throw light on how meditation works."
Improved attention: many studies have shown quantitatively that attentiveness can be improved by meditation. This includes decreased "attentional blink" which is the cognitive processing delay that causes people to miss a stimulus such as the number on the screen when it follows rapidly after another. The theory behind this is that meditation improves "working memory", which to use a computer analogy, it is akin to increasing your RAM. To quote again:
"(Emotion, vol 10, p 54). McLean points out that meditation is partly about observing how our sensory experiences change from moment to moment, which requires us to hold information about decaying sensory traces in working memory."
Emotional balance: fMRI studies have shown that the amygdala in the brain (which plays a crucial role in processing emotion and emotional memories) was far less active in experienced medittors than novices (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 104, p 11483). Meditators were better at tasks that required resisting the urge to perform an action. The theory is therefore that meditators are better at withholding impulsive reactions to a lot of internal stimuli, some of which can be emotionally intense in nature. This kind of restraint seems to be a key feature of healthy emotional regulation, and rings true with the passive nature of experienced meditators.

Cumulative effect: many studies have shown that the benefits of meditation can be realised with only a small exposure. For example (Consciousness and Cognition, vol 19, p 597) reports that "It is possible to produce substantial changes in brain function through short-term practice of meditation.... Even small amounts [i.e a few minutes a day] of practice can make a discernible difference".

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