Meditation: The science, health benefits and the practical tools to help you get started.

Key Points:

  • A growing body of research supports the immediate benefits of meditation, such as reduced stress and anxiety levels, lower blood pressure, and enhanced happiness.
  • Other benefits include improved attention, memory, processing speed, and creativity.  
  • Meditation may also help counteract age-related loss of brain volume and increase telomere length.
  • By Meditating for 20 minutes, you will gain the same benefits of taking a 1.5 hour nap, but instead of feeling the “nap hangover”  you’ll be left feeling refreshed, awake and ready to focus on the tasks at hand.

Introduction:

There is growing evidence to show that meditation practices can make you healthier and happier. For example, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) which has been used to treat depression, and has been show in brain imaging technology scans to change the brain in a number of positive ways.

Similar to how weight training strengthens and stimulates an increase in muscle mass, Meditation can strengthen the brain to help keep it fit and “younger”, virtually helping counteract age-related loss of brain volume.    

MRI scans have shown that long-term meditation is powerful enough to stimulate change in the structure of the brain that lead to a thickening (or “bulking up”) of areas such as the cerebral cortex (Which is the outer layer of your brain) and other brain regions such as those associated with attention and sensory processing.

Past studies have also illustrated meditation’s impact in increasing overall brain performance such as improved attention, memory, processing speed and creativity.  

A growing number of studies have revealed that meditation’s impact goes beyond the brain; it also reduced chronic inflammation in the body and induces a powerful and long lasting positive influence in gene expressions (Via Epigenetics Modulation)—all of which can boost overall physical health and longevity.

Long-Term Meditation Linked to Loss of Brain Volume

In a 2015 study1 50 long-term meditators and 50 control subjects between the ages of 24 and 77, were used in a study on the effects of meditation.

On the control group participants it was observed that aging correlated with a loss of brain volume (as expected) while on those who meditated it was found that they had suffered less age-related brain atrophy (As reported by GMA News:3 ).

Furthermore those who meditated for an average of 20 years, were found to have higher brain volumes that the average person.  

For long term meditators, researchers had expected to see more gray matter in certain regions of the brain, yet the findings showed that meditation had a widespread effect throughout the brain and appeared better preserved than the average people of the same age, while having less age related gray matter loss through their brains.  

How Meditation Increases Productivity

Unlike stimulants such as caffeine which stimulates more neural activity in your brain and trigger your adrenal glands to release the stress chemical adrenaline, Meditation, energizes you and makes you more productive without triggering an adrenaline rush.

Meditation makes the nervous system more orderly, thereby making it easier to release pent-up stress, while increasing productivity levels.

If you think of your brain as a personal computer (PC), the brain like a PC,  has a finite amount of resources to process information such as memory (RAM) and processing speed (CPU).

Most of us go through our day with our thoughts focusing on the past and or the future, because we lack the awareness and the training to be present in the moment.  

The reality is that the constant thinking of past memories (good or bad) or constant thinking of future events (Panning) compete for processing resources with the existing here and now in both mind and body.  

Depending on the strength of the past memory of thoughts of the future, these applications (or processes) could be doing their thing in the background (in a hidden more subconscious manner like your PC doing a quick virus scan) or even in a more intrusive.  

Have you ever been able to get anything done while your PC is processing a resource intensive application like a humongous excel sheet with a bunch of micros in the background?

It’s super frustrating because there is simply no computer memory (RAM) left for any other application.

Whether thinking of the past memories or the future events, large or small, these applications processes take up all of our brain’s computer memory (RAM) and processing speed (CPU).

Have you ever driven a car and once you arrive to your destination and once arriving at your destination remembering only getting in the car and arriving, but nothing in between?

This happens because when the brain is hijacked by thoughts of the past or the future, because it literally has no mental resources to process the present moment.

When this happens we end up in a form of  “auto-pilot” mode where we are not fully aware or conscious of the present moment and are literally “asleep at the wheel”.

When you learn to meditate using techniques such as mindfulness meditation in essence you begin to train your brain to becoming fully aware and conscious of the present moment.  

This is what was referred to in ancient text as “awakening” your consciousness and it’s a very gradual process that takes time and the right approach, it’s like building muscles.

At first when you begin to work out with weights, your muscles start very weak and small.  

But if you put in your time in the gym, complete the number of repetition for each exercise in your workout routine and properly nourish your body, eventually your muscles will become stronger and increase in volume, only in this case it’s brain volume for the regions that help you stay here and now and living life to the fullest (This is exactly what the MRI’s on the meditators showed).   

Contrary to popular belief, taking the time to meditate can actually help you gain more time through boosted productivity than what you put into it.

The thing is that once you start practicing meditation you actually end up gaining more time and boosting productivity by using the newly developed awareness muscles (brain volume) which will shut down those pesky background mental processes.

And when you learn to shut down the background mental process you automatically shut down any related negative emotions to the past (like depression) and the future (like worry and anxiety) and you start enjoying your life to the fullest.  

No more auto pilot or being sleep at the wheel,  your brain is running the present moment at 100% memory (RAM) and CPU and you are ready fully take on the world!

So even though it takes a time commitment to meditation, because it in turn makes your brain function so much better, you end up accomplishing your tasks much faster (so you end up with more time in your day) and your sleep becomes more efficient because you’re using your sleep as a time for sleep because you use the meditation as a time for stress relief.

Benefits of Meditation Beyond Brain Health

Stress is well-recognized to negatively impact human health, so meditations ability to reduce stress levels is an important benefit. A recently published study from Carnegie Mellon University claimed they’ve found the biological mechanism by which mindfulness affects physical health.

What they found is that meditation impacts your biology and physical health via “stress reduction pathways” in the brain. As explained in the press release:6

“When an individual experiences stress, activity in the prefrontal cortex — responsible for conscious thinking and planning — decreases, while activity in the amygdala, hypothalamus and anterior cingulate cortex — regions that quickly activate the body’s stress response — increases.

Past studies have suggested that mindfulness meditation reverses these patterns during stress; it increases prefrontal activity, which can regulate and turn down the biological stress response.

Excessive activation of the biological stress response increases the risk of diseases impacted by stress (like depression, HIV and heart disease).

By reducing individuals’ experiences of stress, mindfulness may help regulate the physical stress response and ultimately reduce the risk and severity of stress-related diseases.”

Such effects may explain why meditation can help to relieve stress-related diseases such as: high blood pressure, chronic pain, headaches, respiratory problems, mild depression, sleep disturbances, fatigue, gastrointestinal distress and irritable bowel syndrome.

Other research, such as that conducted at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine wanted to quantify the benefits of the relaxation response by assessing gene expression before and after meditation, as well as compared effects of short- and long-term meditation routines.

In one of their recent studies,8 both participants who participated in an eight-week long meditation program and longer-term meditators saw increases in antioxidant production, telomerase activity, and oxidative stress while also being anti-inflammatory.

The researchers also noticed that benefits appear to be dose dependant, with changes taking effect after just one session7.

Helpful Tools:

  1. Breath Awareness:

I started my exploration of meditation and relaxation techniques over 15 years ago.  During that time I tried many different techniques and each has it’s own benefits. One really easy and practical foundational technique that can help you to calm & concentrate the mind by becoming aware of the breath is Anapana Sati.

Anapana Sati literally translates to “mindfulness of breathing” in Pali (the language that people in India spoke 2,500 years ago).

The breath is a great tool to learning mindfulness because any time you lose the balance of your mind the breath pattern will lose it’s regularity and it becomes a bit of an early warning system to losing the balance of your mind. For example if start to become angry you may notice you hold your breath (as I used to do) or your breathing becomes more rapid and erratic.  

Breath awareness is also a great tool to help establish mindfulness because it is something that occurs naturally and starts training you to accept things in your body as they are, not as you would like them to be.  

As you begin to practice observing the touch of the breath (and related sensations) as it goes in through your nostrils and out of your nostrils your mind will wander to the past of the future, yet you bring the attention back to the touch of the breath and the related sensations.  With regular practice you will be able to calm and concentrate the mind to the point where it will become sharper, more sensitive and thoughts of the past or the future will no longer distract you.

Your thoughts of the past and the future will be transformed from powerful brain hijacking processes that put you in autopilot mode, to just being like the sound of light rain falling on top of a tin roof shelter, which you learn to simply “tune out” and become simple background sounds.  

Here is a great video resource for you to get a glimpse of practicing Anapana Sati.

Getting trained on and properly establishing yourself in Meditation is something that takes time and focused energy,  which as well all know can be hard to establish due to our business every day life schedule.

To properly learn Anapana Sati and it’s related yet deeper and more advanced Vipassana Meditation technique, I  highly recommend signing up for a 10 day Vipassana Seminar.

2. The MUSE Brain sensing device:

Another really helpful tool is biofeedback devices such as the MUSE, which I have incorporated as a means to monitor the efficiency and to keep me on track to my meditation practice.

One of the biggest challenge to meditating (Even after having taken a course) is to truly know if you are doing it correctly. You can watch all the videos you want, but ultimately you’re left to navigate the course to relaxed brain waves unguided. That is where convenient consumer devices like the Muse plays such an important role, as it provides you real-time feedback on how well you are doing.

If you wanted access to this technology a few years ago, you would have needed a literal closet full of equipment costing over $10K. But now for a tiny fraction of that cost, along with your smartphone or tablet, you can get a personal tutor to guide you on how to meditate and can tell you if you are doing it right or not. The audio feedback consists of storms, winds, waves and birds chirping.

The Anapanasati technique works great with the MUSE.  When practicing Anapanasati and using the MUSE the goal is to calm your mind (by focusing on your breath), so there is the least amount of sound.

If your mind is wandering to the past of future, you will hear a storm or heavy winds. If your mind is lightly focused and relaxed, you will hear waves.  You will know you are successful when you start to hear birds. It can take several sessions to hear the birds, but once you get the hang of it, it is pretty easy.

You can start out slow and put your toes in the water by meditating for five minutes once or twice a day. If you have more time and are motivated, you can even do 20-minute sessions.

Many users find that combining Anapana Sati and the MUSE helps them sleep deeper while also providing many of the same benefits of sleep. If you are unable to fall back to sleep, this is a great option.

Come check us out to see how at Brain Mechanics we are using out of the box thinking and innovative approaches like EEG monitored Meditation & affect regulation practices, Functional Medicine, tDCS, tACS, PEMF, neurofeedback, the RECode Protocol and AI to eradicate Alzheimer’s from the face of the earth.

Sources and References

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