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Meditation - Benefits and Practice

Meditation is the study of techniques to help regulate the brain functions that affect our moods. The brain is the control center of the body. External stimuli perceived by the sensory organs are routed to the brain, and the brain reacts by releasing hormones that act as chemical messages to various organs throughout the body and by sending electrical signals that control the muscles. Physical or mental stress trigger the release of adrenaline which causes an increase in the rate and strength of the heartbeat resulting in increased blood pressure. In contrast, pleasant experiences have a calming influence that lowers blood pressure.

Brain Structure

Scientific skepticism. Meditation has been practiced for centuries by mystics and religious sects. Many types of meditation make use of mental images that help to focus the mind on specific targets, but which have no basis in science. Taoists believe that the fire energy of the heart flares upward clouding the mind when emotions are not controlled, and through meditation the flow is reversed. In yoga philosophy, there are six major chakras which are centers of energy within a central channel that lead to a seventh chakra at the crown of the head. The non-scientific nature of these dogmas caused scientists to discount the beneficial claims for meditation until it became evident that there were measurable biomarkers.

Another factor that has contributed to skepticism about meditation is the emergence of businesses that use hard sales techniques to try to scam people by selling DVDs of Quantum Jumping which is supposed to be a meditation style that incorporates active visualization techniques. The reference to quantum jumping is purely metaphorical. It has nothing to do with quantum physics. The sales pitches make preposterous claims that you can learn to slip into other universes where you can take alternate identities to discover everything you want to know about finances, decisions, sports, love, languages or any other subject.

Scientific Studies. Meditation has been studied scientifically only since the 1970s. Scientific studies focus on the measurable physiological and chemical changes of a subject without regard to the philosophy or religious nature of the imagery used to achieve the meditative state. It is now generally accepted that meditation has some beneficial effects, but the biochemical mechanisms have not been fully identified. It is thought that meditation may influence neurotransmitter chemicals in the brain. One study found that advanced meditators have higher melatonin levels than non-meditators, but that melatonin decreases during long meditation. Serotonin declines after both one-hour meditation and rest, indicating that serotonin may be a marker of general rest and not meditation-specific relaxation[1]. 

Scientific studies have not always been conclusive in favor of meditation. An evaluation of a work site relaxation training program using ambulatory blood pressure monitoring found that the stress management techniques decreased the diastolic blood pressure variability of asymptomatic workers. However, unlike previous studies, no reductions in laboratory blood pressures nor in psychologic symptoms were found[2].  Hormones have also been proposed as being responsible for the relaxed feelings induced by meditation. One study suggests that just as maternal oxytocin levels are raised by somatosensory stimulation during breastfeeding, oxytocin may also be released by stimuli such as touch or warm temperature in plasma and in cerebrospinal fluid. Consequently, oxytocin may be involved in physiological and behavioral effects induced by social interaction in a more general context. Because of the special properties of oxytocin, including the fact that it can become conditioned to psychological state or imagery, oxytocin may also mediate the benefits attributed to therapies such as hypnosis or meditation[3]. 

These studies are just a few examples of the dozens of research papers that are being published yearly in refereed scientific journals on the effects of meditation. Other studies use a variety of instrumentation, from electroencephalograms (EEG) to computed axial tomography (CAT) scans, in an effort to identify the areas of the brain that are active during meditation. The safety of meditation, which has been reported to induce epileptic seizures, is also being studied[4].  In addition to fundamental research, there are many experiments evaluating meditation as part of complementary and alternative medicine in pain management, for prevention of recurrence of suicidal behavior, and for the reduction of anxiety in terminally ill patients.

How do you Meditate?
Traditional meditation requires four elements:

Transcendental meditation is a technique of meditation of Hindu origin that promotes deep relaxation through the use of a mantra. A mantra is a verbal formula that is repeated in meditation to maintain concentration while not focusing intensely.

Concentrative meditation focuses the attention on the breath, an image, or a sound (mantra), in order to still the mind and allow a greater awareness and clarity to emerge. The simplest form of concentrative meditation is to sit quietly and focus the attention on the breath. Breathing provides a natural object of meditation. There is a direct correlation between breathing and the state of mind. The breath is typically shallow, rapid, and uneven when a person is anxious, frightened, agitated, or distracted, whereas it tends to be slow, deep, and regular when the mind is calm, focused, and composed. By letting the mind become absorbed in the rhythm of inhalation and exhalation, your breathing will become slower and deeper, and the mind becomes more tranquil and aware.

Mindful meditation involves broadening your attention to become aware of the continuously changing external sensations and feelings, images, thoughts, sounds, and smells without becoming involved in thinking about them. Sitting quietly and simply witnessing whatever goes through your mind, not reacting or becoming involved with thoughts, memories, worries, or images trains the mind to be non-reactive and helps in the attainment of inner peace. This process is analogous to providing advice for a friend who is overwhelmed by problems. As a detached observer who is not affected emotionally by your friend's state of mind, you can provide new perspectives for looking at the problems and reach more objective and logical decisions. Similarly, the non-reactive state of mind from mindful meditation gives you the ability to become aware of the multitude of factors that surround you, and you became more calm from having a broader perspective.

  1. Solberg EE, Holen A, Ekeberg O, Osterud B, Halvorsen R, Sandvik L., "The effects of long meditation on plasma melatonin and blood serotonin", Med Sci Monit. 2004 Mar;10(3):CR96-101. Epub 2004 Mar 1, PMID: 14976457
  2. Fiedler N, Vivona-Vaughan E, Gochfeld M. "Evaluation of a work site relaxation training program using ambulatory blood pressure monitoring", J Occup Med. 1989 Jul;31(7):595-602. PMID: 2671313
  3. Uvnas-Moberg K. "Oxytocin may mediate the benefits of positive social interaction and emotions", Psychoneuroendocrinology, 1998 Nov;23(8):819-35. Review. PMID: 9924739
  4. Murphy T, Persinger MA. "Complex partial epileptic-like experiences in university students and practitioners of Dharmakaya in Thailand: comparison with Canadian university students", Psychol Rep. 2001 Aug;89(1):199-206. PMID: 11729543

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