When someone says they are going to meditate, what comes to mind? Someone clad in a loose robe, sitting cross-legged in a sweat tent, repeating a mantra? Well, that's more the Hollywood version of it. Meditation is actually a very complicated state in the brain and body that has been shown to alter how the brain functions.
The effect is particularly pronounced in those who have practiced for years. Neuroscientist Daniel Goleman and his co-author Dr. Richie Davidson (co-authored by Dr. Richie Davidson, wrote a book about meditation and how it impacts brain function. Titled "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body" the book is a look at those who meditate at a level the authors describe as "Olympic."
The book shows how meditation impacts the brain. Davidson has a B.S. in Psychology from New York University and a Ph.D. from Harvard University in Psychology, Psychopathology & Psychophysiology with a minor focus in Behavioral Neurology and Neuroanatomy. While other colleagues were studying how the brain works, the mechanisms behind neural networks and the supercomputing powers of the human mind, Dr. Davidson's focus was on how meditation and mindfulness can result in a calmer brain that is more efficient. Showing this in a laboratory setting, however, is different. Investigating mindfulness and meditation in a scientific environment was the subject of the book he wrote with Goleman on how high-level meditators, those who have made it a way of life and practiced for years, show clear changes in brain function.
Both men spent years studying and writing about the brain, meditation, emotional intelligence, and mindfulness. Both men spent time in India learning to meditate but found that selling the concept of brain function as influenced by meditation was difficult in the scientific community. It was their meeting with the Dalai Lama, who challenged them to investigate it vigorously, that strengthened their resolve.
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Many of the early studies on mindfulness were trials that taught one group of subjects necessary details of meditation and compared those results to a control group of subjects who had no meditation experience. These didn't offer much in the way of evidence since many of the studies were not well-conducted. Still, they persevered and found that studies done at MIT, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of California-Santa Barbara showed the mindfulness and breath-counting exercises had a positive effect on the ability to stay focused and on task.
Stress and its impact on brain activity is a common focus of research and a landmark study from Emory University, which the authors discuss in their book, showed that eight weeks of mindfulness training significantly reduced the stress response in the amygdala of the brain when subjects were shown upsetting photographs. There are also studies that looked at kindness and compassion. A kind of meditation called "loving-kindness" meditation was investigated in Davidson's lab and showed that subjects who had gone through a program of compassion training were more generous to fictional victims of trauma in a game than those who had not undergone the training.
Unfortunately, regarding medical benefits, the results have not been as successful. While there have been some minor successes in mindfulness exercises reducing inflammation, most of the benefits of meditation are in reducing the psychological stressors that accompany physical illness. In a study of meditation practitioners who had been at it for decades, however, it was found that the more experienced meditators had extremely high levels of gamma-wave oscillation not only during meditation but continuously. Gamma waves happen in quick split second spikes when parts of the brain work together. A Yale study showed that Olympic level meditators had high levels of gamma waves, even before going into a meditative state. These seasoned thinkers were going through life in a much higher state of awareness and brain activity measurements showed precisely how and where it was reflected.
Mindfulness and meditation are still being researched, but there is a substantial body of evidence that shows our thought patterns can influence our overall health and well-being. Take a look at the video below to learn more about the book and Drs. Goleman and Davidson's work.