Meditation was once seen in the West as something for robed monks and mountain hermits. Recent scientific evidence has redefined the concept as a tool that can be integrated into a busy modern life. Regular practice of meditation has been shown to have benefits for sufferers of anxiety, depression, and stress, and can improve mental functioning and well-being.
The art of meditation is ancient and data suggests it was used by prehistoric civilizations. Objects found in India which date back to 3,000 B.C show evidence of its practice, and the first written scriptures can be found in Hindu Vedantism from 1,500 BC. It is perhaps most famed for its associations with Buddhism, and is still widely practiced today.
For many practitioners, meditation involves an effort to develop a deeper understanding of the mind, body, and the universe, both internal and external. It often culminates in a quietening of the usual chatter of thoughts, and a state of stillness, which gives way to an immense feeling of peace and resonance with All-That-Is.
The science of meditation may have been pioneered by the Buddha, who made detailed and well-measured observations of inner experience, enough to map techniques that are still used today. Quite different to the science of the Buddha, modern techniques of neurology, MRI scans, and EEG scans, can show the direct effects of meditation on the body and brain of the practitioner.
Such scans have shown increases and decreases in certain areas of the brain in those experienced in meditation. For example, one study by Brewer et al (2011), showed decreased activity in the medial pre-frontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortices, both areas associated with mind-wandering, and self-referential systems. They also found increased activity in areas of cognitive control and self monitoring.
Many such studies have demonstrated changes in brain patterns during meditation, and EEG measurements have also shown an ability for those who meditate to operate more frequently at alpha-level brain wave states, often associated with relaxed focus.
The body of research surrounding meditation, however vast, has been subject to heavy criticism due to its lack of consistency in methodology, the difficulty in its definitions, and the lack of use of a control group that weakens the results of many studies. Despite this, there are still many respectable studies available to affirm the mental-health benefits of meditation. A meta-analysis on the research, carried out by Goyal et al, reviewed over 18,000 citations to find only studies that contained a control group and a relevant effect size. They eventually included 47 trials in the meta-analysis, making for a total of 3,515 participants.
Evidence was found to support the role of meditation in improving anxiety, depression and pain. Lesser but still relevant evidence was found suggesting that it improves stress and mental health. They subsequently suggested that clinicians should recognize the role of meditation and talk to patients about implementing it to reduce stress.
Indeed many health organizations endorse meditation, and offer information on their websites. Surveys by the US government National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine found that meditation is being used in America to help with pain, anxiety, stress, depression and insomnia, and to deal with the symptoms of more serious illnesses such as HIV, AIDS, heart disease and cancer. Although meditation is nothing new, the application of scientific methodology paves the way for a new paradigm, and gives a new authority to the ancient art. As the quality of research on the subject improves, the benefits of meditation for physical and mental health will become increasingly obvious. As this occurs, meditation can be expected to increase its presence, providing patients with relief from pain, anxiety, and stress.
By Matthew Warburton