Twenty-five hundred years ago, a disenchanted prince and seeker of truth sat quietly under a bodhi tree. After much stillness, The Buddha emerged. And the rest is history...
Mention the word meditation, and this quintessential image is conjured up. With the sheer velocity and lightening speed with which we live our lives, meditation seems like an ideal that comes from a galaxy far, far away. We are a proud nation of doers. Sitting, waiting and doing nothing don't exactly fit into our everyday vocabulary of action verbs. For most of us, wait is a four-letter expletive. So, can sitting crossed-legged with eyes-closed doing nothing actually ... do something? Researchers around the world are trying to answer this very question.
With the use of high-tech neuroimaging gadgets like functional magnetic resonance imaging machines (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG), we're slowly understanding how meditation affects the brain. And the word du jour is neuroplasticity. Before your eyes glaze over with this doctor-speak, let's get to the good stuff.
We once thought that your brain at birth was the same brain you were stuck with for life. Yup, it was a grab bag. But what we're learning is the brain, like any other muscle of the body, is dynamic. Brain cells and their connections respond and adapt to stimuli. That's neuroplasticity. And meditation may help to physically train the brain. It's the equivalent of pumping iron, or in this case, pumping neuron.
When The Buddha taught "There is nothing permanent, except impermanence," I'm sure he had a hunch about neuroplasticity.
In a recent landmark study led by Britta Holzel, a researcher at Harvard, just eight weeks of meditation produced a change in the gray matter, the area of the brain which houses neurons. "This is the first study of its kind to demonstrate structural changes in the brain, longitudinally over time, with meditation," said Holzel, "It's fascinating to see how our brains can change in structure by learning a new skill. Meditation is the act of learning a new perspective -- of the world and of yourself, and of being more aware of experiences in the present moment."
But whether these structural changes have real-world application remains to be seen. Holzel agrees, "In the future, what we need to do more of is to connect the mechanisms we see in the brain, with changes that people report, such as increased well-being and better emotional regulation."
In another study, Holzel's colleague, Sara Lazar, found that meditation was linked to increased thickness of the cortex in certain areas of the brain, particularly in older meditators. The cortex is the outermost layer of the brain and functions in planning, organization, memory, and attention.
Given that the cortex becomes thinner as an inevitable age-related phenomenon, could meditation act to buffer the effects of age-related cortical thinning? We're not yet sure. And the jury is also still out on the implications that this may have on age-related cognitive decline. As Holzel cautions, "It's important to emphasize that we're at the beginning of this process and need to learn more. While these first few studies are insightful, we need to know more about what's happening in the brain with meditation and how this relates to the benefits that people report in their real life by meditating."
Today, more than any other time in history, we carry the greatest burden of chronic disease on our weary shoulders. And some of us who are physicians wonder if there is a role for meditation in our world of increasingly complex patients? Studies have looked at meditation as an adjunct treatment for numerous medical conditions. To varying degrees, meditation has been shown to benefit patients with hypertension, chronic pain, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, cancer, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.
While evidence in favor of meditation's benefits is mounting, these findings are preliminary, at best. Do the changes seen in the brain with meditation have clinical significance? What is the 'ideal dose' of meditation when used to manage a medical condition? And what does all this mean for patients and their doctors in everyday situations? As one question is answered, another handful spring forth ... that's the curious thing about progress.
Albert Einstein, perhaps the most famous scientist of our time, once said: "The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science." It is this mystery that fuels the research of meditation forward. Ironically, even the study of stillness requires a fair amount of momentum. For now, we can say that the evidence on meditation shows promise. But we've got quite some time before physicians begin prescribing meditation to patients ... even if the difference between meditation and medication is indeed just one letter.
Let's hope its not another 2500 years. You know how we hate to wait.
Follow Aditi Nerurkar, M.D., M.P.H. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AditiNerurkar