In this article
- Meditation is a practice for the mind and the body
- 11 science-based reasons to meditate
- Helps in weight loss
- Reduces stress
- Increase concentration
- Activate brain areas linked to focus and attention
- Helps to shift focus and move on
- Strengthen connective tissue between right and left hemisphere of the brain
- Linked to better confidence and better job satisfaction
- Decrease anxiety and depression
- Makes braver
- Increase positive emotion and subjective feelings of happiness
- Increase social popularity and optimism
Meditation is a practice for the mind and the body
When you meditate, you focus on your thoughts and learn to notice what kind of automatic thinking patterns arises from your own mind. These patterns of thinking are highly individual to you and stem from your memories and life events, and learned responses to external stimuli like sounds, bodily signals or visual signals. If you meditate regularly, you learn to recognize your thoughts and understand them better. You can also learn to observe them without being bothered by them or improve some maladaptive automatic reactions to thoughts for better. In this way, you can release anxiety, stress or negative thinking.
The practice can lead to long-lasting improvements in your brain structure and function – an effect called neuroplasticity. (R) Thus, meditation is a way to train both your physiology and psychology: your nervous system and the related subjective perceptions of your bodily states.
Since around 1980 and onwards, when Jon Kabat-Zinn (an emeritus professor of medicine in at the University of Massachusetts Medical School), Richard J. Davidson (a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison) and other western scientists, psychologists and medical professors became interested in meditation, the scientific west has revealed it’s tremendous health benefits and it’s ability to improve the physical, emotional and social well-being.
This makes it intriguing not only for scientists, but also all individuals who want to improve their focus, cognition, and physical and mental health with the effective, cheap and very interesting way. (R)
Already many meta-analyses have been conducted about meditation. In this literature research, where I looked what kind of health benefits can meditation bring, I mainly focused on the meta-analyses if I was able to find one.
There are many types of meditation which slightly different outcomes. As an example, Focused Attention meditation, Loving-Kindness meditation, and mindfulness meditation are all examples of different types of meditation. In this review, I also mention the type of the meditation used in each study.
“Meditation helps in weight loss” and other science-based reasons to meditate
1. Mindfulness meditation helps in weight loss
A meta-analysis of 11 studies investigating binge eating, emotional eating, and weight showed that mindfulness meditation effectively decreases binge eating and emotional eating. (R)
In another review, 11/19 studies showed that mindfulness is moderately effective for weight loss and largely effective in reducing obesity-related eating behaviors.
Mindfulness practitioners lost an average of 3,3 kg (or 3.3% of initial body weight), and they continued to lose weight after the intervention. At follow-up measures, they had lost an average of 3,5 kg.
In the control condition (lifestyle change program) participants lost more at the treatment but gained weight after the intervention ended. (R)
2. Meditation reduces physiological stress markers
One meta-analysis that looked the physiological response to meditation. It included focused attention, open monitoring, and automatic self-transcending meditations. The study concluded that all the previously mentioned forms of meditation can decrease systolic blood pressure. In addition, focused attention meditation also reduces cortisol levels and open monitoring meditation reduce heart rate.
When all meditation forms were analyzed together, meditation reduced cortisol, C-reactive protein, blood pressure, heart rate, triglycerides and markers of systemic inflammation. (R)
3. Mindfulness meditation increase concentration
Open Monitoring (OM) and Focus Attention (FA) meditations like mindfulness have been shown to increase concentration in multiple studies (R). One study found that mindfulness practice is effective in improving attention. The meditation group improved their skills in sustained attention compared to relaxation group and control group (R). It has been shown that mindfulness meditation activates the brain areas linked to sustained attention and even though it also often brings a relaxing effect, the specific neural changes linked to focus and attention distinguish the practice from being just a technique of “relaxation”. (R)
4. Mindfulness meditation helps to activate brain areas linked to focus and attention
In a recent paper of Richard Davidson, the world-known brain researcher concluded that mindfulness meditation and focused attention meditation systematically trains certain brain areas. (R)
For example improvements in the next brain areas was linked to meditation practices:
- dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is a functional network in the front part of the brain. Evolutionary, it has developed recently and is linked to decision making, reasoning, and working memory (sustaining information in mind). (R)
- visual cortex: which locates at the back part of the brain and is linked to attention
- superior frontal sulcus, the supplementary motor area, and the intraparietal sulcus: which are linked to sustaining attention
Expert meditators of with an average of 19,000 practice hours showed stronger activation in these areas than the novices. Also, expert meditators became increasingly more effective in sustaining attention with minimal mental effort. (R)
5. Vipassana meditation helps to shift focus and get “less stuck”
Open monitoring technique, that is known from vipassana and mindfulness meditation, can make you better in attending to new moment-to-moment information and less likely to “get stuck” on previous tasks or signals that you are exposed to.
Studies have found that vipassana meditation increases cognitive flexibility and helps to shift focus to new information. The neuroimaging study used a widely used robust method of perception psychology called “attentional blink”. In attentional blink task, a person is shown information that changes rapidly. For example, a person could be shown two letters in a row in a very fast phase. Sometimes we fail to consciously process the second letter in order because our brain is still processing the first letter. The combination of fastly changing information and our inability to change our attention rapidly results in missing new information.
Meditation can increase the brain resource allocation to the first task, which increases our ability to focus our attention on both stimuli rather than getting “stuck” to process information thas already passed. Thus, it increases the ability to perceive and attend to rapidly changing subsequent tasks or signals. (R)
6. Meditation strengthens the connection between right and left hemisphere in the brain
Between right and left side of the brain (the hemispheres) is a part called corpus callosum, which is a bundle of nerve fibers that relay messages between right and left hemisphere of the brain. Recent findings suggest that long-term meditators have a thicker corpus callosum compared to non-meditators. Thus, the brain of meditators are more efficient in relaying messages between right and left side of the brain. Nevertheless, more long-term studies are needed to show the causal link between meditation and corpus callosum thickness. (R)
7. Trait mindfulness is linked to confidence and job satisfaction
A meta-analysis concluded that trait mindfulness is linked to better confidence (ρ = .39) and higher job satisfaction (ρ = .29), better performance (ρ = .34), and improved interpersonal relations (ρ = .31). It was also linked to reduced risk of burnout (ρ = –.48) and work withdrawal (ρ = –.17). (R)
8. Mindfulness-based therapy (MBT) decrease anxiety and depression more effectively than many other therapies
One meta-analysis of 39 studies with over 1000 participants found that mindfulness-based therapy is a clinically effective way to decrease anxiety and depression. The effect was robust over studies and the improvements were maintained even after the study has ended. All 39 studied included a clinical adult sample and at least 8 in-person meditation coaching sessions as an only treatment. All studies also included pre- and post-intervention measures. (R)
Another meta-analysis with 209 and over 12 000 participants of diverse ages, genders, and clinical profiles concluded that mindfulness in many different psychological conditions was more effective to improve wellbeing than psychoeducation, supportive therapy, relaxation, imagery, and art-therapy, but no more than traditional CBT (R). Many studies used the established 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, an American professor emeritus of medicine.
9. Meditation decrease fear
The previously mentioned neuroimaging paper of Davidson concluded that meditators were less reactive to external sounds. More specifically, meditators showed less amygdalar activation in response to emotional sounds. Amygdala is the brain part that mediates automatic and unconscious fear reactions to loud sounds, scary images or surprising and sudden changes in the environment. (R)
This finding supports the idea that when your concentration is increased with meditation, your maladaptive reactions to loud noises or other disturbing external signals is decreased.
10. Loving-Kindness meditation can increase positive emotion and subjective feelings of happiness
Meditation interventions have shown an increase in positive emotions in several studies. Dr. Barbara Fredrickson was the pioneer in studying positive emotions and were able to distinguish 10 different positive emotions in humans (R), which can potentially all be increased with meditation. The increase in positive emotions is especially linked with the style called Loving-Kindness meditation. In Loving-Kindness meditation (LKM) the practitioner deliberately visualizes other people and offers wishes of happiness and goodwill to them by repeating good wishes inside the mind. The style comes from the Buddhist meditation style called Metta-meditation or compassion meditation. In the western world, it has been given a name “Loving-kindness” which means practicing the skill of all-inclusive acceptance and love. Thus, this is a practice of prosociality and positive emotions.
A recent meta-analysis of 24 empirical studies of LKM-meditation concluded that LKM practice is effective in enhancing positive emotions, but more studies are needed to identify why – what actually needs to be thought or practiced. Yet, the meta-analysis already showed that there are two distinguishable components in the practice; compassion and loving-kindness, of which LKM had stronger treatment effect on positivity than compassion. (R)
11. Meditation can increase social popularity, optimism, and cognition in children
In this study, 99 children were randomly assigned to Mindfulness-based education group (Social Emotional Learning) or control group for 12-weeks. Mindfulness group practiced mindfulness, positive emotions or focused attention 3 minutes three times a day.
The results were astonishing. Only after 12-weeks of 9 minutes meditation per day, the mindfulness had (compared to control group):
- better control of attention and focus
- improved memory and reaction times
- significantly lower morning cortisol levels, which is an indicator of decreased stress
- increased optimism and emotional control
- increased empathy and better perspective taking
- more prosocial behavior
- they were more positively evaluated by peers
This gives promising results of implementing mindfulness practices and positive emotional training to school settings.
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