(NaturalNews) What is it about meditation that invokes so much mystery? When asked, people conjure images of difficult lotus positions, strange beliefs and exotic settings. Of course, none of that is necessary and the realities of a person sitting comfortably on their living room floor for a few minutes isn't quite as interesting. Confounding public perceptions even more are the religious connotations that are sometimes connected to meditation. This only serves to further alienate people who could potentially benefit. This is unfortunate since it can easily be argued that prayer in any religion is a form of meditation. The practice of meditation has a long history in almost every major historical civilization and religion, yet there is so much that is not known.
When we look at the past philosophies and beliefs associated with meditation, we can understand the perspectives of the ancients according to contemporary science. Science has not replaced the old views; so far it has mostly served to strengthen many of the ancient beliefs. However, modern science has been able to fill in essential details of underlining processes.
It has been shown that meditation can increase pain tolerance (see below for sources). One study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience (2011), showed that meditation caused a 40% lowering of pain intensity and a 57% lowering of pain unpleasantness. That is impressive when you consider that morphine and other pain relieving drugs only lower these symptoms by about 25%. This relief came from subjects with no previous meditation experience who were taught basic meditation in a total of four 20 minute classes.
A number of studies that have utilized modern imaging technology, such as fMRI, have clearly shown that meditation increases blood flow to the brain and, with extended practice, actually makes significant changes to the brain's physical structure. These changes can lead to increased efficiency and function in certain parts of the brain, such as heightened visuospatial processing and increased focus.
A Harvard Medical School study (2011) put subjects on a two-month course of meditation and then used fMRI to compare the brains of the mediators with the average brain. The results showed that the subjects had increased gray matter density "in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking."
In 2010, a University of Pennsylvania Medical Center study used SPECT (single-photon emission computerized tomography) to map out the differences in blood flow in the brain between people who meditate regularly and people who do not meditate at all. Specific regions of the brain were found to have more blood flow than those of the average person. "The observed changes associated with long-term meditation appear in structures that underlie the attention network and also those that relate to emotion and autonomic function."
Meditation can also foster positive emotions and give practitioners an increased ability to deal with emotions in general such as those associated with stress and anxiety.
A 2009 study published in Neuroimage from UCLA used MRI to compare long-time meditators with novices. In the veteran meditators, they found significantly larger gray matter volumes in the right orbito-frontal cortex, the right thalamus and 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 most researched and clearly established benefit to mediation is the increased ability of attention and self-awareness. Although meditation is not yet fully understood, one thing is certainly clear: meditation nourishes the brain.
Dave Gabriele, D.Ac, BA, is a registered acupuncturist, a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine and a health researcher helping people in and around the Greater Toronto Area. He is the founder of Life Balance Family Health Care (www.balanceyourlife.ca), an organization committed to providing people with the information and guidance they need to make positive lifestyle changes. Dave has been a teacher of Chinese martial arts since 1997, including the arts of Taiji and Qigong.