The sense of spiritual consciousness, connecting to something greater than oneself, is one of the most intoxicating realms a human can enter. Across the millennia, such experiences have shaped the lives of individuals and, upon occasion, whole cultures. The question for science is not to deny them, but to seek to understand the processes by which they occur and the domain into which they lead us. Central to these true stories is a special state of mindfulness, what the psychologist Charles Tart described in his classic 1972 Science paper as a state of consciousness.
Although these experiences, when they happen spontaneously, are often one-time events, almost every human culture on earth has developed practices, usually in a spiritual or religious context, for attaining this state. Similarly, all the martial arts have this component of mindful discipline, a practice of focusing intentioned awareness. Collectively, we have come to call these practices meditation.
Of all the things that you can do to know yourself, nothing will serve you as well as developing the practice of meditation. Although meditation is often associated with Asian cultures, it is not Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Satanic or any faith at all. It can be done in the name of any of these faiths, or without faith in a religion -- as distinct from a spiritual sense. Meditation is a single term defining many practices.
More than 1,000 papers have been published on meditation in the peer-reviewed literature between 2006 and 2009. There is not one meditation literature, but multiple branches to this literature in several disciplines, from physics to pastoral counselling, concentrating on everything from using meditation to end addiction, to symptom reduction in Fibromyalgia. Much of the research focuses on stress reduction, sleep problems and attention issues. But the emerging evidence on the lasting effects meditation has on our neuro-anatomy, and particularly our brains is, perhaps, the most fascinating research of all.
This work has documented a kind of deep "stillness" that affects the entire brain. When this occurs, the frontal and temporal lobe circuits -- which track time and create self-awareness -- seemingly disengage. The mind-body connection dissolves. These studies show us that the limbic system is responsible for assigning emotional values to persons, places, everything in our total life experience. Since the limbic system, among other things, regulates relaxation and ultimately controls the autonomic nervous system, heart rate, blood pressure and metabolism, it produces both emotional and physiological effects when you react to a specific object, person or place. This is why your hair "stands on end," your skin "crawls," your stomach "lurches" or your heart "beats faster."
Because meditation affects the limbic system, developing the discipline allows one to become more volitionally in control of these responses. The practice has a calming effect that leaves us relaxed and physiologically more evenly regulated. This, in turn, allows us to be coherently focused, because we are less distracted by our inner dialogue and emotions as well as our physiological responses. And this literally changes your brain.
A team at the Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, headed by Sara Lazar, used MRI to scan the brains of long-term meditators to see if the physical structure of their brains really were different. In 2005, they reported their findings in Neuroreport:
"Brain regions associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing were thicker in meditation participants than matched controls, including the prefrontal cortex and right anterior insula. Between-group differences in prefrontal cortical thickness were most pronounced in older participants, suggesting that meditation might offset age-related cortical thinning. Finally, the thickness of two regions correlated with meditation experience. These data provide the first structural evidence for experience-dependent cortical plasticity associated with meditation practice."
In 2009, at the Center for Functionally Integrative Neuroscience at Denmark's Aarhus University, Peter Vestergaard-Pulsen led a team seeking to explore the effects of long term meditation on brain structure. They found, as they report in their paper, also in Neuroreport:
"Using magnetic resonance imaging, we observed higher gray matter density in lower brain stem regions of experienced meditators compared with age-matched nonmeditators. Our findings show that long-term practitioners of meditation have structural differences in brainstem regions concerned with cardiorespiratory control. This could account for some of the cardiorespiratory parasympathetic effects and traits, as well as the cognitive, emotional, and immunoreactive impact reported in several studies of different meditation practices."
That same year, a research team at the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, Department of Neurology, UCLA School of Medicine, publishing in Neuroimage, reported:
" ... meditation practice has been shown not only to benefit higher-order cognitive functions but also to alter brain activity ... meditators showed significantly larger volumes of the right hippocampus. Both orbito-frontal and hippocampal regions have been implicated in emotional regulation and response control. Thus, larger volumes in these regions might account for meditators' singular abilities and habits to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful behavior."
The work of Yi-Yuan Tang, of Dalian University of Technology in China, and Michael Posner, of the University of Oregon, will end my short survey. Their work suggested once again that meditation literally changes one's brain, noting that the changes occur very quickly, in as little as 11 hours.
So if you are seriously interested in self-improvement and want to change your brain, meditation could be the answer. Its reward is a kind of mental coherence that is hard to achieve in any other way, and it is this coherence that seems to bestow spiritual, mental, emotional and physical health on longtime meditators. If you commit to a daily practice for just 90 days, I believe you will find good reasons for continuing.