We hear it all the time: Meditation can improve our creative thinking, our energy, stress levels and even our success. Prominent artists, businessmen and politicians cop to the practice. Would it work for you?
"It did to my mind what going to the gym did to my body -- it made it both stronger and more flexible," said Dr. Hedy Kober, a neuroscientist who who studies the effects of mindfulness meditation, which she has practiced for 10 years, at her lab at Yale University. She admitted during a TED Talk that she started meditating to deal with a break up, but found that it helped her handle stress and unpleasant feelings in all areas of her life.
Studies show that meditation is associated with improvement in a variety of psychological areas, including stress, anxiety, addiction, depression, eating disorders and cognitive function, among others. There's also research to suggest that meditation can reduce blood pressure, pain response, stress hormone levels and even cellular health. But what does it actually do to the body?
For one thing, it changes our brain. The cells and neurons in the brain are constantly making new connections and disrupting old ones based on response to stimuli, a quality that researchers call experience-based neuroplasticity. This affects the neural circuits of the brain, which in turn affects how we respond to situations. It also affects the actual structure of our brains -- thickening some areas and making others less dense.
"Think of the end of a neuron as a hand, with thousands of 'fingers,'" said Dr. Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital who studies mindfulness meditation. "The number of fingers relates to the number of interconnections between neurons and that number can change -- one reason it can change is due to stress."
Want to learn more? We put together an illustration to help break down the many benefits of meditation.
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Quite literally, sustained meditation leads to something called neuroplasticity, which is defined as the brain's ability to change, structurally and functionally, on the basis of environmental input. For much of the last century, scientists believed that the brain essentially stopped changing after adulthood. But research by University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson <a href="https://psyphz.psych.wisc.edu/web/News/Meditation_Alters_Brain_WSJ_11-04.htm" target="_hplink">has shown that experienced meditators exhibit high levels of gamma wave activity</a> and display an ability -- continuing after the meditation session has attended -- to not get stuck on a particular stimulus. That is, they're automatically able to control their thoughts and reactiveness.
A 2005 study on American men and women who meditated a mere 40 minutes a day <a href="http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1147167-2,00.html" target="_hplink">showed that they had thicker cortical walls than non-meditators</a>. What this meant is that their brains were aging at a slower rate. Cortical thickness is also associated with decision making, attention and memory.
In a 2006 study, college students were asked to either sleep, meditate or watch TV. They were then tested on their alertness by being asked to hit a button every time a light flashed on a screen. The meditators <a href="http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1147167-2,00.html" target="_hplink">did better than the nappers and TV watchers</a> -- by a whole 10 percent.
In 2008, Dr. Randy Zusman, a doctor at the Massachusetts General Hospital, asked patients suffering from high blood pressure to try a meditation-based relaxation program for three months. These were patients whose blood pressure had not been controlled with medication. After meditating regularly for three months, <a href="http://www.npr.org/2008/08/21/93796200/to-lower-blood-pressure-open-up-and-say-om" target="_hplink">40 of the 60 patients showed significant drops in blood pressure levels</a> and were able to reduce some of their medication. The reason? Relaxation results in the formation of nitric oxide which opens up your blood vessels.
Telomeres -- the protective caps at the end of our chromosomes -- are the new frontier of anti-aging science. Longer telomeres mean that you're also likely to live longer. Research done by the University of California, Davis' Shamatha Project <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/apr/24/meditation-ageing-shamatha-project" target="_hplink">has shown that meditators have significantly higher telomerase activity that non-meditators</a>. Telomerase is the enzyme that helps build telomeres, and greater telomerase activity can possibly translate into stronger and longer telomeres .
A 2008 study on HIV positive patients found that, after an eight-week meditation course, patients <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080724215644.htm" target="_hplink">who'd meditated showed no decline in lymphocyte content</a> compared with non-meditators who showed significant reduction in lymphocytes. Lymphocytes or white blood cells are the "brain" of the body's immune system, and are particularly important for HIV positive people. The study also found that lymphocyte levels actually went up with each meditation session. However, due to the small sample size -- only 48 volunteers -- it's harder to draw definitive conclusions.
Earlier this year, a study conducted by Wake Forest Baptist University found that <a href="http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-04-demystifying-meditation-brain-imaging.html" target="_hplink">meditation could reduce pain intensity by 40 percent and pain unpleasantness by 57 percent</a>. Morphine and other pain-relieving drugs typically show a pain reduction of 25 percent. Meditation works by reducing activity in the somatosensory cortex and increasing activity in other areas of the brain. This study also had a small sample size, making it harder to draw definite conclusions.
The Positive Benefits of Meditation