Fitness, Exercise, Sleep, Meditation: these four things summarize the majority of health science over the past few years. And, while Fitness, Exercise, and Sleep are mainstays with vast amounts of research literature to back them up, Meditation is relatively new to the party. So, does meditation work?
Before I dive into that question, I think it’s appropriate to do a brief history lesson as to why it took so long for meditation to get into mainstream health culture in the West. After all, meditation is by no means a new practice; Buddhism was founded all the way back in the 6th century BCE, and people have been using it ever since. I think the primary cause of this was the rapidly increasing importance of mental health coinciding with a mental health decline, primarily occurring in the West. From this, you had figures like Alan Watts who transported the meditation philosophy of those such as Krishnamurti to the states. It took a while, but at this point meditation is pretty ingrained into the psychological and neurological sciences.
There’s a couple of associations that have been found in research. On the psychology side, positive correlations have been found between mindfulness/meditation in life satisfaction, and negative correlations with things such as depression, stress, and rumination. In neuroscience, we see those with heavy meditation experience to have significant cortical thickness.
I can also speak a bit for my own personal experience with meditation. I’ve been meditating on and off for the past four years, and I’ve noticed that three distinct benefits come with it: discipline, awareness, and transcendence. The first two of these are pretty self-explanatory; teaching myself to sit still for 20 minutes has helped me a lot in sticking to broader things like routine, and keeping in the present has helped me become more aware of my surroundings. “Transcendence” is a mindfulness-ism that primarily centers around separating the ego from reality. I’ve only experienced this maybe two or three times, but it is definitely the most notable and fun part of meditation. The best way I can describe it is seeing the world in the third person, without you being a character; watching everything go on without necessarily worrying about your place in it all. So, all things considered, I would say meditation works.
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The effect of meditation on brain structure: cortical thickness mapping and diffusion tensor imaging
Smith, Ben N.,, IV. (2018). Resiliency, generalized self-efficacy and mindfulness as moderators of the relationship between stress and both life satisfaction and depression among college students: An investigation of the resilience process (Order No. AAI10669675). Available from PsycINFO. (2040343683; 2018-11223-253).
Paul, N. A., Stanton, S. J., Greeson, J. M., Smoski, M. J., & Wang, L. (2013). Psychological and neural mechanisms of trait mindfulness in reducing depression vulnerability. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8(1), 56-64.
Vengel, D. (2016). The relationships among mindfulness, rumination, and stress-related sleep disturbance (Order No. AAI3738909). Available from PsycINFO. (1847049162; 2016-37861-016).
Sperka, M. (2016). Does a brief mindful meditation facilitate decentering and result in decreased depressive rumination? (Order No. AAI3739894). Available from PsycINFO. (1847901806; 2016-42143-118).