The science behind meditation


What happens when you meditate? You feel a stillness in your wandering mind and calmness in your breathing. Every breath evaporates your stress into thin air. You forget about the chaos in your life. It is just your mind and the body becoming one with your surroundings, as you experience mindfulness like never before. With every passing minute, your mind becomes more aware and more focused. You feel in control of your thoughts. As the profound feeling of peace and repose overwhelm you, you open your eyes to a world that feels new and quieter.

Countless people meditate every day. From the shrines of the East to the city parks of the West, meditation and its tangible benefits help people navigate their lives toward serenity. For monks and hermits, meditation is a gateway to higher consciousness and enlightenment, a path shown by sages and the Buddha. For people living in cities, the practice is like the ‘morning coffee’ they take to awaken themselves. The perceptions and applications may differ. But the fact remains that the prehistoric discipline of meditation has admirers in all corners and alleys of the world. It begs the question: How a routine, as simple as breathing or chanting a mantra, can have such radical effects on one’s mind and body that it has become a lifestyle choice for so many?

Science has the answer. A few years ago, neuroscientists from Harvard conducted a study to understand how the brain reacts to meditation. What they found was nothing less than extraordinary. According to the research, the part of the brain responsible for reasoning, planning, emotions, and self-conscious awareness becomes dormant during meditation. It means all the thoughts that flood the mind evaporate within a second. At the same time, the section that reads sensory information begins to shut down as well, making the nervous system less sensitive. A state of silence and stillness fills the mind, as the focus converges on breathing, a thought, or on an external object—as per the type of meditation. “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing,” says Sarah Lazar, PhD, senior author of the study.

The rewards of meditation are not limited to just psychological wellbeing. It also helps people to become a better version of themselves.

While Dr Lazar’s research shows how quietness and stillness of the mind lead to physical changes in the brain, other studies indicate how they affect the practitioner’s wellbeing. One such study led by Joshua Grant, a neuroscientist from Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, reveals how pain sensitivity of the brain reduces by 57 percent through meditation—97 percent for accomplished meditators. For its proven results, doctors around the globe prescribe meditation to cancer and arthritis patients to help them cope with pain. And not just the physical pain, but as evidence suggest, emotional and psychological pain as well, which could spring from a broken relationship or challenges in a career. Perhaps, that is why experts advise people who are going through rough patches in their lives to meditate. As science implies, with meditation, people can find peace, and happiness to soothe their minds.

For centuries, people questioned the impact and benefits of meditation on one’s wellbeing. But now the debate has come to an end with extensive studies and researches to support its effectiveness. Meditation is indeed the elixir of life: it reduces ageing, improves our memory, and our ability to multitask; our ability to think outside the box; increases our attention span; helps people manage their anxiety, stress, and depression. The rewards of meditation are not limited to just psychological wellbeing. It also helps people to become a better version of themselves. In a paper, published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that through meditation, people can become more compassionate and confident, and acquire higher emotional intelligence. They feel less lonely, as they learn to regulate their emotions in a more constructive way.

Through meditation, individuals can keep their relationships healthy too. A joint conducted by the University of Wyoming and the University of Oregon revealed the empirical link between the two. It says that people who meditate are more likely to keep themselves calm, in the events of arguments or disputes. They don’t take things personally; they don’t speak on impulses; they know how to engage in disagreement and when to disengage; they show empathy towards their partner. Researchers claim, “It helps partners to regulate their own responses and more fully accept one another resulting in less negative fallout from conflict when it arises.” When you practise meditation, you don’t have to wait to feel these changes manifesting inside you. Before you know, people closer to you will tell “you look different”.

Above everything, meditation gives perspective. It liberates us by simply cleaning our minds littered with the irrational, unwanted, and wandering thoughts that cause various psychological disorders. “The quality of our life depends on the quality of our mind,” says Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. In life, we can’t control what happens to us. Through meditation, however, we can control our attitude and our response to these critical situations.


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