Meditation made its way from spiritual practice to a secular, pop culture-fueled lifestyle trend, but despite all its evolution and appropriation, many psychologists and researchers still think it can have a substantial and beneficial impact on the human brain.
One primary challenge to observing meditation within psychological trials and studies is that it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what meditation means given its long history and varied cross-cultural uses.
The earliest written documentation of meditation is from 1500 B.C.E., found in the Vedas, a body of religious texts and Hindu scripture of ancient India. It later spread to other Asian countries. Judaism and Islam had meditation practices that grew in prominence around the Middle Ages. Eastern and Western Christians also had their own versions. Meditation became a popular topic among Western intellectuals during the 18th century and by the mid-to-late 19th century, transcendentalists began to popularize aspects of Hindu and other Asian religions in the United States, which included meditation practices.
Western fascination with Eastern practices had another surge during the counterculture movements of the 1950s and ’60s and is likely the foundation for the current understanding and appropriation of meditation within popular culture. Psychological and physiological research on meditation began in the 1930s and would proliferate in the ’70s and ’80s.
Most of the psychology research studies small groups of participants and with clinical trials ending after a short period of time. They tend to focus on the more Westernized and modern version of meditation called mindfulness meditation, which typically involves the practice of being in the moment by focusing on things like breath pattern and sensory information and attempts to redirect trailing thoughts.
Such studies such as “Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation,” published in the Trends in Cognitive Sciences journal in 2008, evaluated neuroscientific research on meditation and found that when meditation is conceptualized as emotional and attentional regulatory training, it seems to have long term effects such as improved and increasingly effortless concentration and greater emotional flexibility which is the ability to shift between emotions.
For example, emotional flexibility would allow you to still enjoy a walk through the park on a day that something awful happened in the world – in other words, a handy skill to have during a pandemic. It would also allow you to feel sadness while simultaneously recognizing the good in life, which is also valuable.
Other studies like “The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation,” published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience in 2015, had similar findings. Mindfulness meditation seemed to enhance attention by changing the structure of the anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in attention allocation and impulse control.
Emotional regulation was improved and stress was reduced by engagement of the fronto-limbic networks. Weakness and lack of connectivity in those networks has been shown to lead to lack of cognitive and emotional control.
The brain’s default mode networks, such as the midline prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate cortex, were altered and improved present-moment awareness. These default mode networks are most active during wakeful rest states, such as daydreaming, and while having detailed thoughts to achieve a task.
A 2015 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, analyzed a group of 100 long-term meditators and control subjects and found that although all participants lost gray matter with age, the rate at which long-term meditators lost gray matter was slower than in the control group. Gray matter processes information in the brain and its functions include everything from motor control to higher learning and formations of memory and thoughts.
Many of these studies note that to really understand the effects of meditation, more longitudinal studies with larger groups of subjects are needed, but the findings so far seem promising.
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