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The surprising study that convinced me to meditate daily

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I’m sure you have heard about mindfulness and meditation or seen some celebrity talking about it on TV.People like Tim Ferriss, Oprah Winfrey, Hugh Jackman, Cameron Diaz, Katy Perry, Ellen Degeneres and even some of the largest hedge fund managers in the world are saying that meditation is something they do each and every day.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Could sitting still and thinking about nothing really make such a big difference?

Turns out it can………..

After doing a lot of research on meditation I found that the list of benefits is as long as my arm. Here are just a few:

Meditation can:

  • Decrease stress
  • Increase creativity
  • Increase focus
  • Relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • Improve immune system and energy levels
  • Reduce blood pressure
  • Increase memory retention and recall
  • The list goes on…..

Even after reading all of the above studies, there was just one that convinced me that meditation is something you should be doing each and every day.

What is this one study you may ask?

Mindfulness physically increases the grey matter in your brain

Don’t worry, I also struggled to believing this one.

Neuroscientist Sara Lazar also struggled believing all the benefits that were associated with meditation. In her Ted talk, she explains that she was a skeptic, just like you might be. She started doing Yoga and wondered how something as silly as sitting still and watching your breath, could actually have all of these benefits.

So as any good scientist would, she wanted to investigate. First she took people from the Boston area (oh yeah she works at Harvard) who are meditators, scanned their brains and then compared them to people who did not meditate. What they found, is that the meditator’s brains had several areas with more grey matter compared to the non-meditators.

What was REALLY interesting is that when you compared this to their age, you could see the people who were not meditating’s grey matter had actually decreased and shrunk with age. This makes sense, it’s harder to figure things out and remember things as you get older.

For the meditators however, a 50 year old had the same amount of grey matter as the 25 year old. So meditation actually decreases the brain decline with age…… That’s pretty big!!!

Now Dr Lazar wasn’t convinced yet, there could be a whole lot of other factors influencing this. Maybe these meditators were like this before the time or it could be something, like being vegetarians.

So they did a second study, with people who had never meditated before (just like you). They ran a brain scan and then put them through an eight week meditation course. After 8 weeks they scanned them again. What did they find……

They found that both the hippocampus (which is important for memory, learning and emotional regulation) and the temporo-parietal junction (which is important for perspective taking, empathy and compassion) had increased, significantly.

They also found something surprising. These people had decreased grey matter in other areas of the brain. When they looked at the amygdala (this is the part of your brain that is known as your lizard brain and it is responsible for your fight or flight reaction) they found that it had actually decreased. Now this might sound bad, but it’s actually really good. The change in grey matter correlated with a change in stress. The smaller the amygdala became the more stress reduction people recorded. This change meant a change in people’s relationship to their environment. Their perception of stress changed with the decrease in grey matter.

The economy still sucked, they still had to sit in traffic every day and got shouted at by their boss, but they perceived it as less stressful.

Dr. Lazar has done many other studies after these and you can have a look at them here, here, here and here. It’s really fascinating stuff.

After reading all of this I was ready to go and I had only one question……

So how do I do this?

I’m glad you asked.  

I don’t know.

I don’t know what is going to work for you.

There are many different ways to do this. The two main forms of meditation are mantra meditation and mindfulness meditation. In mantra meditation you repeat a word or sound that doesn’t mean anything over and over to occupy your brain and eventually quieten it. In mindfulness meditation you focus on something like your breath and you just let all your thoughts slip by and focus back on your breath.

I’ve personally tried both (and a few others) and eventually decided that a mantra meditation worked best for me. But I am not going to kid you, it’s hard the first few times……

You close your eyes and say:

“Ok, now just think about nothing”

Then two seconds later “Oh, did I forget the stove on”, “Wait what did she tell me again”, “ I Wonder what I am going to do after this”, “My leg really hurts when I sit like this, wonder how long I can stay here”……. “Oh, I need to pee….”

Your mind is like a brand new Golden Retriever puppy. All over the place. This is normal. With any of these practices, just start out small. Start out with 1 minute or 5 minutes. When your mind starts running all over the place and you get frustrated, just remember that when you are 50 you are going to be smarter than all of your friends.

(I want to put a quick caveat in over here. If you are a religious person, don’t let that scare you off. Meditation/mindfulness is not specific to any religion. Buddhism might call it meditation and that is what everyone thinks about, but Christianity and Islam call it prayer and all it really is, is quieting your mind.)

There are many other forms of mindfulness, so you don’t have to meditate. I know people who take 20 minutes every morning just to sit and watch their gardens, they just focus on that and let their racing mind go. This is their form of meditation. You can also put on your favorite song and just concentrate on that or anything else. As long as you really focus on one thing and let the Golden Retriever puppy go. These days we even have technology to help us. You can try Apps like Headspace or Calm. These are both great and they help you throughout the process.

Summary

Mindfulness and meditation really works and it’s backed by science. Stop making up excuses of why you don’t do it and just give it a try. You will see the benefits within as short as 4 weeks and your brain will thank you when you are 80, sitting on the porch and kicking everyone else’s ass in scrabble….

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