The science behind meditation
Neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart and spiritual teacher Adam Martin answer your questions on the science behind meditation.
How does meditation actually work? what's the science behind meditation? If these questions have stopped you from getting zen and starting this calming practice, you're in the right place. Here's what meditation is and the science behind how it works.
What is the theory of meditation?
Meditation is the act of gifting something our awareness and attention. It isn’t just about sitting in a lotus position with your eyes closed. It's not necessarily stillness of the mind either.
A lot of mythology is around emptying the mind, but the opposite is also true. We’ve all become lost in music and dance, so in that way, ecstatic dance is also a form of meditation. Sound is an underused resource in terms of modulating brain frequencies. The power of music and sound has the ability to transform us mentally and physically.
At its essence, meditation is a much broader and richer framework than people may think.
What happens scientifically when you meditate?
When you meditate, your brain produces alpha and gamma brainwaves that enhance an overall sense of relaxation. With regular meditation, the levels of your stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, are lowered. It improves your ability to pause before your impulses and not act out on them.
The phone has been engineered in a way to trigger the release of dopamine in your brain. Although it is a wonderful distraction, it is hard to condition yourself to tear yourself away from it and instead spend time with friends and family. It’s been designed to be addictive and distract us from the important things in life.
So what does meditation do? It helps you to learn to unhook yourself from bad habits and distractions that have become so ingrained and normalized in modern life.
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What is the science behind meditation?
There are many studies that have shown the science of meditation and its benefits. For example, a study found that women who do yoga (which is a type of moving meditation) three times a week have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than age-matched women who don’t.
Another example is a study by Professor Amishi Jha, who set out to answer the question 'is there science behind mindfulness?' by researching US Marines. The Marines were put into two groups- the control group who didn’t meditate, and a group who had to do 12 minutes of mindfulness meditation daily for 8 weeks prior to being deployed into battle.
The results showed that the marines who meditated had increased resilience even after being deployed. Those who didn’t want to take part ended up contacting the lab when they saw the others were able to sleep and were not suffering from anxiety sweating. As they were already on the battlefield, the scientists were sceptical of how impactful the practices would be. The breakthrough results showed that even on the battlefield, mindfulness practices significantly improved anxiety, insomnia, and low mood.
This article is based on a discussion by leaders in neuroscience, meditation, and braincare:
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Claudio Naranjo’s ‘How to Be: Meditation is Spirit and Practice’
Brian Tracy’s ‘Eat That Frog: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating’
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