Meditation has been supposed to give many benefits, reduced stress and risk for various diseases, improved well-being, a better functioning brain – however science hasn’t been able to support these claims. But most studies have relied on small, unrepresentative samples – hardly the basis for any conclusions based on science. A Buddhist monk is not a real example of efficacy.
However, maybe that’s about to change. A recent study published in Biological Psychiatry brings a scientific approach to mindfulness meditation – and the results are startling. Unlike a placebo, mindfulness meditation can change the brains of ordinary people and perhaps improve their health.
So what does this mindfulness meditation actually mean? It demands ‘‘an open and receptive, non-judgmental awareness of your present-moment experience,’’ says J. David Creswell, professor of psychology and the director of the Health and Human Performance Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University. He led the study. One difficulty of investigating meditation has been the placebo problem. In rigorous studies, some participants receive treatment while others get a placebo: They believe they are getting the same treatment when they are not. However, people can usually tell if they are meditating. Dr. Creswell, working with scientists from a number of other universities, managed to fake mindfulness.
First they recruited 35 unemployed men and women who were seeking work and experiencing considerable stress. Blood was drawn and brain scans were given. Half the subjects were then taught formal mindfulness meditation at a residential retreat centre; the rest completed a kind of fake mindfulness meditation that was focused on relaxation and distracting oneself from worries and stress.
Dr. Creswell comments, ‘‘we had everyone do stretching exercises, as an example,’’. The mindfulness group paid close attention to bodily sensations, including disagreeable ones. The relaxation group was encouraged to chatter and ignore their bodies, while their leader joked with them.
At the end of three day period, the participants all informed the researchers that they felt refreshed and better able to withstand the stress of their current state of employment (most were unemployed). Strangely enough follow-up brain scans showed differences in only those who underwent mindfulness meditation.
There was more brain activity among those parts of their brains that process stress-related reactions and other parts related to focus and calm. Four months later, those who had practiced mindfulness showed much reduced levels in their blood of a marker of unhealthy inflammation than the relaxation group, even though few were still continuing with meditation activity.
Dr. Creswell and his partners believe that the changes in the brain were responsible for the subsequent reduction in inflammation, although how this occurs remains unknown. Also unclear is whether you need to engage in three uninterrupted days of contemplation to enjoy the benefits.
When it comes to how much mindfulness exercise is needed to improve health, Dr. Creswell says, ‘‘we still have no idea about the ideal dose.” It does however seem obvious that even some meditation is better than none at all.