Meditation has become popular in Silicon Valley – CEOs have adopted the practice, and apps devoted to it have proliferated. A growing body of evidence suggests regular meditation is linked with benefits including lower stress and better focus. A new paper suggests people who participated in a meditation retreat reported decreases in anxiety and depression.
The idea of sitting in a quiet room doing nothing for a few minutes each day might sound absurd – unless you understand how meditation works.
By giving our bustling mind a dedicated break from its day-to-day worries, meditation appears to empower it to run more efficiently. A growing body of research suggests that even a few minutes of a daily mindfulness practice is linked to lower stress levels, more positivity, better focus, and creativity.
These merits haven’t gone unnoticed amongst engineers and CEOs in Silicon Valley. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin all meditate, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, and their companies provide opportunities for employees to do so as well. Meditation apps and gadgets have also proliferated. Muse, a $249-dollar “brain-sensing headband” is marketed as a personal meditation assistant, and the company behind mindfulness app Simple Habit has raised $2.5 million.
Several studies, including a paper published this month in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, have found that meditation’s merits can be measured both indirectly – via answers to questions like “How stressed do you feel right now?” – and directly, using biological and neurological tests like blood tests and MRI scans.
In a recent article for Scientific American, neuroscientists Richard Davidson and Antoine Lutz, along with Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, wrote that “the discovery of meditation’s benefits coincides with recent neuroscientific findings showing that the adult brain can still be deeply transformed through experience.”
For the most recent paper, researchers looked at how participating in a three-month yoga and meditation retreat affects three factors: cortisol awakening response (a measure of how we respond to a stressful event), inflammatory stress markers, and brain derived neurotrophic factor, which plays a role in learning, memory, and stress. The researchers found that retreat participants showed “decreases in self-reported anxiety and depression as well as increases in mindfulness” – effects that were mirrored by many physical indicators measured.
The retreat involved a special diet and exercise in addition meditation, so more research is needed to clarify its effects. But so far, the results are promising.
“It is likely that at least some of the significant improvements … were due to the intensive meditation practice involved in this retreat,” Baruch Rael Cahn, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Southern California, said in a statement.
Why meditation is good for the brain
Many of us go through the day with worrisome thoughts or concerns whispering at the back of our minds. We often push these thoughts aside rather than dealing with the feelings they bring up.
Something about meditating – whether it’s the physical space we set up for ourselves each day or the mental space we make by regularly clearing the mind – seems to help us deal with these negative thoughts.
A large review of studies involving close to 3,000 people found that mindfulness meditation was linked with a reduction in feelings of depression, anxiety, and even physical pain.
Experienced meditators’ brains appear to have well-developed regions that may be connected to things like awareness and emotional control. Some studies even suggest that in people new to meditation, the practice is linked with significant changes in parts of the brain associated with memory, perspective, and self-awareness.
Regular meditation also appears to make it easier for us to focus. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist who has studied meditation and the brain for decades, looked into this idea for a long-term study. He compared people who had been meditating for years with complete newbies, and tried to startle two groups of people – one that was meditating and one that was not – with a sudden interruption like a loud noise. Those meditating were far less perturbed than the people who weren’t, regardless of whether they were new or experienced.
For another part of his research, Davidson had experienced meditators and newbies listen to the sounds of stressed-out voices. He observed increased activity in two brain areas known to be involved in empathy in both groups. But that increase was significantly more pronounced experienced meditators. Davidson concluded that people who meditate regularly might have an enhanced ability to respond to others’ feelings and empathize with them without feeling overwhelmed.
Overall, meditation appears to be effective because it provides us with a sense of perspective.
“Meditation explores the nature of the mind,” Davidson wrote. Perhaps that exploration helps people improve their health in addition to finding calm.