You’re probably aware of how people use meditation for religious purposes and for stress relief. But, there are many other benefits of incorporating meditation into your lifestyle, and I’ll share a few of them below.
5 Fascinating Facts About Meditation in More of A Physical Sense:
It can help students get better grades (especially freshmen).
Research from George Mason University showed that meditating before class helped college students focus better and retain information, and score better on a test. In the study, a randomly selected group of students did six minutes of meditation exercises before the class lecture and scored better on the following quiz that students who did not meditate. In one case, meditation predicted who would pass the quiz and who would fail.
The positive effects of meditation were strongest in freshman classes. Researchers theorize that meditation may give the most help to students having trouble paying attention or focusing on the lecture. Students who have trouble with such “self-regulation” are more likely to drop out. So, meditation may be particularly powerful in freshmen courses and institutions suffering from high attrition rates.
(Jared T. Ramsburg, Robert J. Youmans. Meditation in the Higher-Education Classroom: Meditation Training Improves Student Knowledge Retention during Lectures. Mindfulness, 2013; DOI: 10.1007/s12671-013-0199-5)
It changes our DNA (for the better).
A review of more than a decade of research shows how, by changing DNA, meditation can benefit our physical and mental health. Published in the Journal Frontiers in Immunology, the review focused on studies of gene expression as a result of meditation, yoga, and Tai Chi (termed Mind-body interventions, or MBIs). “Gene expression” is how genes activate and produce proteins that impact the body, brain, and immune system, particularly under stress.
When a person is subjected to a stressful event, the fight-or-flight response is triggered. Genes are activated to produce proteins called cytokines that cause inflammation of the cells. This is useful for the short fight-or-flight reaction, but if the inflammation persists, there is a higher risk of cancer, quicker aging, depression, or other psychiatric conditions.
This fight-or-flight response was important for our hunter-gather ancestors, but not so much today. Stress lasts longer and is more psychological, so the inflammatory gene expression can persist, causing medical and psychological problems.
But those practicing the MBIs showed the opposite gene expression. There was a decrease in the production of cytokines, a reduction of cellular inflammation, and decreased risk of those inflammation-related diseases and conditions.
(Ivana Buric, Miguel Farias, Jonathan Jong, Christopher Mee, Inti A. Brazil. What Is the Molecular Signature of Mind-Body Interventions? A Systematic Review of Gene Expression Changes Induced by Meditation and Related Practices. Frontiers in Immunology, 2017; 8 DOI: 10.3389/fimmu.2017.00670)
It may slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
A pilot study from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center suggests that meditation may change the brain and slow the development of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. A group of adults with mild cognitive impairment was divided into two groups, one of which received Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) using meditation and yoga. This group met weekly, attended a day-long mindfulness retreat, and were encouraged to meditate at home 15-30 minutes per day. All groups had functional MRIs before the study and again after eight weeks.
Researchers were interested in looking at two key areas: the default mode network and the hippocampus. The default mode network is the brain system engaged when people remember past events or think about the future. The hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for emotions, learning, and memory, and is known to atrophy as people develop mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. Previous studies have shown that the hippocampus activates during meditation, and meditators have more hippocampal gray matter concentration.
After eight weeks, the meditating group showed significantly improved functionality in the default mode network, and while they did experience atrophy of the hippocampus, they had less atrophy than the group who did not meditate. More work is needed, but the researchers noted that MBSR is a simple intervention, with a very little downside, and if it delays Alzheimer’s even a little, it can improve the quality of life of those with cognitive decline.
(Rebecca Erwin Wells, Gloria Y. Yeh, Catherine E. Kerr, Jennifer Wolkin, Roger B. Davis, Ying Tan, Rosa Spaeth, Robert B. Wall, Jacquelyn Walsh, Ted J. Kaptchuk, Daniel Press, Russell S. Phillips, Jian Kong. Meditation’s impact on default mode network and hippocampus in mild cognitive impairment: A pilot study. Neuroscience Letters, 2013; 556: 15 DOI: 10.1016/j.neulet.2013.10.001)
It can make better employees.
Management in large organizations often views meditation and mindfulness as something religious (to be avoided in the workplace) or some touchy-feely new age fad. But others feel mindfulness can improve the whole corporate culture, and help employees work together. Research supports this latter view.
A review of mindfulness research by a management scientist at Case Western Reserve University shows how mindfulness training through meditation supports a range of workplace functions:
- Mindfulness improves attention, cognition, emotions, and behavior.
- Mindfulness has been shown to improve the stability, control, and efficiency of attention. It’s been estimated that our minds wander about half the time we are awake. Mindfulness keeps our attention in the present.
- Initial evidence suggests that mindfulness improves interpersonal behavior and workgroup relationships.
- Relationships may be improved because mindfulness gives each practitioner more empathy and compassion.
Recognition of mindfulness is increasing in the corporate world, with Google, Aetna, Mayo Clinic, and the United States Marine Corps already implementing mindfulness training. And so is Britain, under the Mindful Nation UK initiative.
(J. Good, C. J. Lyddy, T. M. Glomb, J. E. Bono, K. W. Brown, M. K. Duffy, R. A. Baer, J. A. Brewer, S. W. Lazar. Contemplating Mindfulness at Work: An Integrative Review. Journal of Management, 2015; 42 (1): 114 DOI: 10.1177/0149206315617003)
It helps you make better decisions.
Why do people make bad decisions, and continue to make bad decisions? They stay in bad relationships, hold on to plummeting stocks, and keep trying to fix up that old junker instead of buying a good car. They continue to “throw good money after bad” because of something called the sunk-cost bias. We don’t like to think we were wasteful or that our initial investment (in a relationship, stock, or car) is a loss.
A series of studies by INSEAD and The Wharton School have found that mindful meditation can help overcome this bias, so people can make more rational decisions. Meditation clears the mind and fosters awareness of the present. You’ll focus on the information available in the present moment, and ignore some of the histories that worsens the sunk-cost bias.
In the studies, better decision-making came with a 15-minute focused breathing meditation; meditation that repeatedly told participants to focus on the sensations of breathing. Afterward, they showed more ability to ignore to sunk-costs. Researchers suggest a two-step process. Mediation focused participants on the present and less on the past and future, which led to less negative emotion. Less negative emotion helped them let go of sunk-costs.
(C. Hafenbrack, Z. Kinias, S. G. Barsade. Debiasing the Mind Through Meditation: Mindfulness and the Sunk-Cost Bias. Psychological Science, 2013; 25 (2): 369 DOI: 10.1177/0956797613503853)