"The pill exists. It is meditation." – Jonathan Haidt
from the Happiness Hypothesis
After spending several months learning about neurological disorders, I was given the impression that the human brain is passive. The brain is treated as if it is beyond one’s voluntary control. After all, pain is explained by A-delta and C fibers, and the lack of motivation is attributed to insufficient dopamine levels. Additionally, it has become common for society to view drugs as the standard treatment for psychological disorders, thus implying that an external solution be used to fix an internal problem. But what if we can mentally synthesize our own treatment from within? Many studies have shown how meditation can be beneficial; these benefits include improved emotions, empathy and creativity, and reduced stress and anxiety.[i] Best of all, meditation is not known to carry any notable negative side effects so there’s no harm in giving it a go.
When I began my research on meditation, I frequently came across the statement that meditation is a mental exercise – a Time magazine article tried to illustrate this by stating that meditation trains the brain as if “gray matter were a bundle of muscles.”[ii] Initially, I thought that this metaphor was simply used as a visual aid until I came across Dr. Lazar’s research. Through analyzing the MRI images of 16 meditation-naïve participants before and after their 8-week mindfulness meditation course, the study concluded that meditation leads to a higher gray matter density, particularly in the left hippocampus and temporo-parietal junction in the brain.[iii] Furthermore, the hippocampus plays a crucial role in long-term memory consolidation, while the temporo-parietal junction is involved in understanding other people,[iv] thus providing the biological basis to why experienced meditators have demonstrated improved memory and empathy.
The biological effects of meditation even transcend beyond the brain since meditation can affect people on the genetic level. A study found that genes were expressed differently among individuals after 8 weeks of undergoing meditation aimed toward eliciting the relaxation response (RR). The altered gene expression in specific functional groups also “suggest a greater capacity to respond to oxidative stress and associated cellular damage.”[v]
The idea that a mental activity can alter the brain’s chemistry is not new. The placebo effect is known to show measurable chemical changes in the brain, which explains why patients who take empty pills (the placebo) reportedly feel better. In another example, mentally planning an action activates the individual’s premotor cortex (PMA), hence illustrating how pianists can benefit from just mentally rehearsing his fingers’ movements along the keys of an imaginary piano.
Despite the therapeutic effects of meditation, I am not advocating meditation to replace drugs as the primary solution toward psychological disorders. I am more in favor of meditation being viewed as an added activity to be used alongside one’s drug prescriptions. There are no side effects; only potential benefits. Additionally, a study has shown how loving-kindness meditation increases the practitioner’s feelings of social connection and positivity[vi]; this gives rise to a suggestion that even if the biological changes associated with meditation are not substantial enough to provide enough relief, the patients’ newfound positivity should at the very least alleviate some suffering. Listed treatments for psychological disorders typically contain a plethora of medications. Perhaps in applicable cases, meditation should be added to the list of medications.
People often ask, “what makes meditation so special from other mental exercises?” Nikki Katz, author of According to The Art of Crossword Puzzles: A Journey Down and Across, explained that unlike solving crossword puzzles, meditating does not involve a feeling of “rush” to complete the task. Even though the task of solving puzzles requires a great deal of focus and consciousness, the crossword-solving mind is not completely silent like the meditating mind. Meditation is a unique mental exercise and consequently, the benefits that are associated with meditation are also unique.
Looking ahead, although meditation has made a strong case for itself, the challenge lies in understanding the biological changes associated with meditation. Today, researchers are able to draw modest conclusions about the implications behind the changes in certain parts of the brain associated with meditation. As our scientific understanding continues to progress, we can also expect to draw more profound conclusions about the effects of meditation and subsequently increase its use as an added treatment to various psychological disorders.
[i]Shauna L. Shapiro, Gary E. R. Schwartz, & Craig Santerre. Meditation and Positive Psychology. http://teachingpsychology.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/meditation-and-pos...
[ii]John Cloud. Losing Focus? Studies Say Meditation May Help. http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2008914,00.html#ixzz2UYoLeuQy
[iii]Peter Vestergaard-Poulsen, et al. Long-term meditation is associated with increased gray matter density in the brain stem. http://www.academia.edu/754486/Long-term_meditation_is_associated_with_i...
[iv]R. Saxe, N. Kanwisher. People thinking about thinking people: The role of the temporo-parietal junction in “theory of mind”. http://ac.els-cdn.com/S1053811903002301/1-s2.0-S1053811903002301-main.pd...
[v]Jeffery A. Dusek, et al. Genomic Counter-Stress Changes Induced by the Relaxation Response. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0002576