Here’s the thing: just a few years ago, meditation would have conjured up images of the usual stereotypes in my mind. Perhaps a long-bearded, half-naked man, legs crossed, fingers raised, perched on some cliff edge in an unknown, extremely hot location, never having done a day’s work in his life. You get the picture. The very idea that I’d give it a second thought was laughable.
Then that silly image started to change. Everyone started talking about mindfulness. Paying attention to the present moment became the new here and now. And companies like Google seemed to propel it into even greater limelight. Staff were said to leave their well-documented mindfulness programme feeling as though their lives and careers had been meaningfully changed.
For a while, the cynic in me dismissed this as a corporate fad: a health and well-being gimmick, led by big corporate giants. Or perhaps just an initiative designed to make us more resilient to longer hours and more unfulfilling work.
But the facts speak. And as I’ve been confronted with more and more evidence on the benefits, I’ve wholeheartedly reassessed my standpoint. On a blog that aims to help readers master their money and their mindset, mindfulness meditation simply cannot go unconsidered.
The neurological benefits of meditation
The benefits of meditation, it turns out, reach way beyond the first-layer arguments of relaxation and stress management. Supported by technological advances, research is increasingly looking at the neurological impact of meditation. Stacks of research now suggest meditation (and particularly mindfulness meditation) is capable of quite literally rewiring our brain circuitry. And many of the findings provide a compelling case for even the most sceptical among us.
#1: Increases in grey-matter density
Grey matter is the neurological good stuff. It’s home to critical cells in our central nervous system and is crucial for a healthily functioning brain. Changes in our grey matter naturally occur throughout life, but various studies have now found an association with mindfulness mediation.
One well-known study looked at the brain density of 16 participants before and after undertaking an 8-week programme in mindfulness meditation. Compared to participants that didn’t undertake the programme, meditators exhibited increases in grey-matter density in the brain regions associated with attention, learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.
These are remarkable results – and they’re not a one-off. Another study by researchers at the University of California and Australian National University looked at the grey-matter density of long-term meditators versus participants that didn’t meditate at all. The findings were again clear: long-term meditators had more grey matter throughout the brain. And while both meditators and non-meditators demonstrated losses in grey matter naturally associated with age, this was less pronounced for long-term meditators.
Let’s pause and digest.
These findings are significant for two reasons. First, grey-matter volume growth in certain regions of the brain may suggest we can neurologically enhance cognition, self-regulation and perspective through meditation. In other words, meditation could lift our performance levels and help us get more from our brains (more on that shortly). Second, slowing the longer-term natural deterioration of the brain suggests meditation may help keep our brains in better shape as we age.
#2: Reduced stress response
Meditation may also play a key role in regulating a part of the brain associated with our emotional response mechanism. The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped part of the brain. Research has shown it plays a key role in our response to stressful situations. It’s responsible for the perception of emotions like anger, fear and sadness. When we’re stressed out and feel like our emotions are out of control, this region tends to exhibit hyperactivity.
In 2010, an important study looked specifically at this brain region to understand if meditation could play a role in controlling its activity. The results? Participants who’d undertaken an 8-week mindfulness meditation had a reduced amount of grey matter in the amygdala region after meditation, suggesting lower activity in this part of the brain.
As a follow-up study in 2012, researchers from Harvard, Boston University and Massachusetts General Hospital wanted to see if this neurological effect could be maintained outside of a meditative state. Participants were shown images designed to provoke emotional responses in the brain. And again, those who had meditated showed a less active amygdala upon seeing the images.
But what does this mean in practice?
The implication is that meditation may help us better regulate our emotions. By controlling activity in our neurological responses to stressful situations, science is getting closer to understanding how meditation may really improve stress management.
#3: Improved focus, cognitive performance and decision making
If changes in grey matter and brain plasticity aren’t enough to convince you, then evidence on cognitive performance and decision-making might be.
A group of researchers from the University of California found that mindfulness training improved both reading comprehension scores and working memory capacity, as well as reducing the occurrence of distracting thoughts. And the best bit? Participants in the study had undertaken just 2 weeks of training to see these results.
So it seems mindfulness can be quickly cultivated to improve cognitive function and general concentration. The latter point has been backed up by research published in PNAS, which found that meditators showed decreased activity in the default mode network (DMN). That’s the brain network responsible for mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts. Reduced activity here suggests meditators may be better tuned in to focus and concentrate on tasks. And that improved concentration potentially means improved productivity.
But increased focus is perhaps an unsurprising consequence of meditation. After all, meditation requires an ability to wash out distractions from our minds. More surprising, then, is evidence on the link between meditation and financial decision-making.
Researchers from INSEAD and the University of Pennsylvania looked at the link between mindfulness meditation and the sunk-cost bias. Remarkably, their results showed that increased mindfulness reduced the tendency to allow unrecoverable prior costs to influence current decisions.
Clearly this has interesting implications for investors and for our day-to-day personal finances. Could mindfulness even play a role in improving our investment decisions? Could it, for instance, help counteract loss aversion?
#4: Improved quality of sleep
I’ve written before about the importance of a healthy sleep routine. It’s a critical issue in getting our mindsets right. But it now also seems that meditation can play a significant role in improving sleep quality.
Research has shown that meditation can reduce insomnia in sleep deprived participants. And what’s more, various studies have found that meditation can increase our melatonin levels. That’s a hormone that plays a key role in our sleep. And in 2000, a group of researchers from La Trobe University found that experienced meditators had heaps more of it than the general population.
But the benefits don’t stop at sleep quality. Research has also found that meditation can even increase the efficiency of our sleep. It’s been shown that experienced meditators sleep fewer hours and yet remain no less alert than the general population.
#5: Other physical, mental and behavioural benefits
Meditation has been associated with a whole raft of other physical, mental and behavioural benefits.
Research, for example, has suggested meditation can help regulate blood pressure, reducing the risk of other associated health problems. And extensive investigations have been carried out to better measure the benefits for our mental health. One major study even placed the efficacy of meditation on a par with anti-depressants as a treatment for depression.
Then there’s research on some of the behavioural changes that meditation can bring about. A study in the Journal of Adult Development found that greater mindfulness was a predictor for lower stereotyping when participants were shown photos of elderly people.
Another piece of research by investigators at the University of Wisconsin looked at how meditation can neurologically affect our levels of empathy. When meditators heard the sounds of people suffering, they found they had stronger activation levels in the brain region associated with empathy than people who didn’t meditate.
A word of caution
You get the picture. Let’s take stock.
There is a huge amount of research out there. The list is too long to capture in a single blog post. But the upshot is pretty clear-cut: meditation offers an astonishing range of benefits – and even has the potential to profoundly change our brain circuitry.
At least, that’s according to the research. But in the interests of balance, it’s worth noting that some of the research should be digested with caution. Many meditation studies use small sample sizes and some academics have argued that the field suffers from some ‘publication bias’. That’s where the outcome of a study influences the decision to publish it.
Notwithstanding, given the increasing quantity and quality of research out there, the neurological impacts are becoming less and less disputed. Meditation really does present opportunities to rewire our neurological circuitry.
How on earth do I even meditate?
I’ll level with you. I can’t write as an authority on the practice of meditation, because right now I’m a complete novice. This article in the Harvard Gazette does it much more justice, but the principles are quite straightforward.
First, find a quiet place to sit. This doesn’t have to be at the top of a mountain or at a water’s edge. Just a quiet space, free from physical distractions.
Now you’ve found your quiet place, sit up straight with your hands resting on top of your legs. Again, nice and simple. There’s no need to elevate your fingers, and absolutely no need to gently hum to yourself. Just a relaxed and upright seating position.
Next, close your eyes. No need to elaborate on that.
And finally, the hard bit: breathing. Focus on the ins and outs of your belly, and the rise and fall of your chest. Breathe naturally.
Of course, the first time you do this, you’ll probably get overloaded with thoughts about other things. Or, like me, you’ll overthink your breathing.
But the advice for us is clear: allow thoughts to flow without passing judgement. Then return to your breath. Keep at it regularly and the distractions will ease away – or so I’m told. Practice at least 10 minutes every day.
Mindfulness meditation can better acquaint us with our own minds, but it’s not a walk in the park. It’s brain training like anything else. So if you’re productivity conscious like me, the initial days and weeks can feel wasteful. Mastery, and the benefits that come with it, requires practice.
But once we start to increase our focus and regulate our environmental experiences, meditation can be a gamechanger. It can literally start to rewire our brain circuitry, boosting both our neurological and physical health.
In turn, this can have wide-ranging consequences for how we experience life. It can regulate our emotional responses and help better manage stress. It can help lend perspective and act as a counterbalancing force for behavioural good.
If you’re sceptical, digest the evidence. Take a moment. Focus on it. And then ask yourself what you’ve got to lose by trying.