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The Science of Meditation for Friends who Think You’re a Hippie

The Science of Meditation for Friends who Think You’re a Hippie

EDIT: Ok yep, this post actually doesn’t dive into the science at all, although it does summarise some scientific studies. I’m gonna revisit this again and get a bit more scientific-y another time.

Meditation rocks. If you can actually be bothered to do it more days than not, or even if you do it sporadically, there’s so much to be gained from hanging out on that cushion. Let’s face it though, it’s still seen as a pretty alternative practice by those who don’t close their eyes for extended periods of time except for when they’re sleeping, and for those of us who do, it’s tempting to keep our practice a secret to colleagues and certain friends, for fear of being called that most lazy of insults, a hippie. Or maybe that’s just me.

Thankfully meditators everywhere have a new ally. Science is on our side! Recent developments in research and in neuroscience in particular have shed fascinating insights into what happens physiologically and psychologically when we meditate, validating that ancient practice and demonstrating it’s universal worth.

Of course those of us who meditate know what good it does for us without have to turn to the ‘S’ word for validation of our practice, but it’s worth recognising what this research is telling us, partly because it’s great motivation to keep meditating, or maybe approach it with renewed vigour, but also because it’s great to have some handy ammo in case that ‘H’ word ever gets aimed at us.

Humans have known about the efficacy of meditation for thousands of years, yet in the west it’s only been relatively recently that it has started to catch on. Despite an increase in awareness of meditation, it’s still likely some of your friends will think you’re a nut for doing it, so here is what you’ve always wanted – a list of some of the profound benefits of meditation, as confirmed by those rational scientists. Who can argue with that? And if you don’t meditate, this is what you’re missing…

1) The mindfulness cultivated by meditation lowers levels of the hormone cortisol, of which high levels are associated with stress

2) The practice of meditation produces a relaxation response, even in new meditators, leaving you nice and mellow but without blunting the sharpness of your mind

3) Meditation actually causes physical changes in the brain, including an increase in the volume of grey matter in the right orbito-frontal cortex, and the size of the right hippocampus. Why should we care? This is good because it’s thought larger volumes in these regions leads to the cultivation of positive responses and emotions, and increased engagement in mindful behaviour.

4) Meditation increases cortical thickness, which recent studies have associated with lowering pain sensitivity

5) Meditating strengthens the connections between brain cells, and increases ‘gyrification’ of the cortex. This enables the brain to process information faster. Furthermore, it was found the more years you meditate the greater these benefits.

6) Just ten days of intensive mindfulness training can lead to improvements in working memory, sustained attention, attention switching and depressive symptoms

7) Meditation activates the anterior cingulate cortex, enhancing your ability to control worried thinking

8) Meditation decreases elaborative stimulus processing, resulting in the improved ability to attend to the continuous stream of stimuli we are exposed to without getting ‘fixed’ on one particular thing

9) ‘Open’ meditation increases creativity and the ability to come up with new ideas

10) In one study, meditation reduced the risk of suffering a heart attack, stroke or death by 48%

Who knew?! If you want to be creative, less stressed, more chilled, kinder, healthier and a better thinker, you know what to do…

Question Everything

Question Everything

When I was 16 I had an embarrassing experience that at once humiliated me and taught me an invaluable lesson. I was in my first ever sociology class at college and the lecturer had asked a simple question: ‘How long can a man survive without food and water?’ Without thinking, I instinctively and proudly blurted out the answer: ’40 days and nights!’ I declared.

Before the words had even finished leaving my mouth, I had an awful feeling that something strange and terrible had just happened. Years of religious indoctrination that I thought I had battled my whole life to successfully repel had indeed penetrated my thoughts and being at a fundamental level after all.

Stories about Jesus on an epic desert mind-bender had somehow got muddled up with what I thought I knew about survival. Humiliated by my completely factless answer, I realised with a crunching and disheartening feeling of dread that I couldn’t trust my own mind.

To his credit my lecturer’s ploy had worked, his point had been made, and in a subtle way my life and how I consider myself would never be the same. I felt a lot of shame that day in class as I so nakedly revealed to my cohort the extent of my religious conditioning. These days I’m grateful for the lesson I received though, for it highlighted how easily we humans have a capacity for absorbing and communicating bullshit.

‘Question everything’, my lecturer later said—and these words have never left me, as pertinent now as they were then.

For those of us interested in discovering what life is really about, there is much to question. Government propaganda, mainstream and alternative news providers, inescapable, omnipresent and manipulative advertising, PR campaigns, supermarket shelves, laws and rules, religious and new age thinking, science, popular cultural values, social norms, education, childhood upbringings and more, all convey messages that influence our thoughts and behaviour, and all implicitly or explicitly provide instructions for how to live.

The cultural and institutional structures that shape our world tell a narrative we could take as the truth if we chose not to question everything.

As a result of this conditioning, our minds are a quagmire of deeply held assumptions about the way things are, that may or may not correspond with ‘reality’, whatever that is. There’s a lot out there to question, and even more to distract us from doing so. But if we want to live lives that are a product, at least to a degree, of freethinking and autonomous decisions, we have to take this journey.

If we’re trying to work out how life might look if we could discard the myriad ways we’ve been conditioned, if we want to live lives that are real and meaningful we must be prepared to consider the possibility that everything we know is wrong. In fact, I would suggest, this is a pretty good place to start.

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