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6 Benefits of Meditation You Probably Don’t Know

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You’re probably aware of how people use meditation for religious purposes and for stress relief. But there are many other benefits of incorporating meditation into your lifestyle.

It can help students get better grades (especially freshmen)

Research from George Mason University[1] showed that meditating before class helped college students focus better, retain information, and score better on a test. In the study, a randomly selected group of students did six minutes of meditation exercises before the class lecture and scored better on a following quiz that students who did not meditate. In one case, meditation predicted who would pass the quiz and who would fail.

The positive effects of meditation were strongest in freshman classes. Researchers theorize that meditation may give the most help to students having trouble paying attention or focusing on the lecture. Students who have trouble with such “self-regulation” are more likely to drop out. So, meditation may be particularly powerful in freshmen courses and institutions suffering from high attrition rates.

It changes our DNA (for the better)

A review of more than a decade of research[2] shows how, by changing DNA, meditation can benefit our physical and mental health. Published in the Journal Frontiers in Immunology, the review focused on studies of gene expression in subjects who practiced meditation, yoga, and Tai Chi (termed Mind-body interventions, or MBIs). “Gene expression” is how genes activate and produce proteins that impact the body, brain, and immune system, particularly under stress.

When a person is subjected to a stressful event, the fight-or-flight response is triggered. Genes are activated to produce proteins called cytokines that cause inflammation of the cells. This is useful for the short fight-or-flight reaction, but if the inflammation persists, there is a higher risk of cancer, quicker aging, and depression or other psychiatric conditions.

This flight-or-fight response was important for our hunter-gather ancestors, but no so much today. Stress is longer, and more psychological, so the inflammatory gene expression can persist, causing medical and psychological problems.

But those practicing the MBIs showed the opposite gene expression. There was a decrease in the production of cytokines, so a reduction of cell inflammation and decreased risk of those inflammation-related diseases and conditions.

It may slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease

A pilot study from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center[3] suggests that meditation may change the brain and slow the development of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. A group of adults with mild cognitive impairment were divided into two groups, one of which received Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) using meditation and yoga. This group met weekly, attended a day long mindfulness retreat, and were encouraged to meditate at home 15–30 minutes per day. All groups had functional MRIs before the study, and again after eight weeks.

Researchers were interested in looking at two key areas: the default mode network and the hippocampus. The default mode network is the brain system engaged when people remember past events or think about the future. The hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for emotions, learning, and memory, and is known to atrophy as people develop mild cognitive impairment and then Alzheimer’s disease. Previous studies have shown that the hippocampus activates during meditation, and meditators have more hippocampal gray matter concentration.

After eight weeks, the meditating group showed significantly improved functionality in the default mode network, and while they did experience atrophy of the hippocampus, they had less atrophy that the group who did not meditate. More work is needed, but the researchers noted that MBSR is a simple intervention, with very little downside, and if it delays Alzheimer’s even a little, it can improve the quality of life of those with cognitive decline.

It can make better employees

Management in large organizations often view meditation and mindfulness as something religious (to be avoided in the workplace) or some touchy-feely new age fad. But some feel mindfulness can improve the whole corporate culture, and help employees work together. Research supports this latter view.

A review of mindfulness research by a management scientist at Case Western Reserve University[4] shows how mindfulness training through meditation supports a range of workplace functions:

Mindfulness improves attention, cognition, emotions, and behavior.
Mindfulness has been shown to improve the stability, control, and efficiency of attention. It’s been estimated that our minds wander about half the time we are awake. Mindfulness keeps our attention in the present.
Initial evidence suggests that mindfulness improves interpersonal behavior and workgroup relationships.
Relationships may be improved because mindfulness gives each practitioner more empathy and compassion.
Recognition of mindfulness is increasing in the corporate world, with Google, Aetna, Mayo Clinic and the United States Marine Corps already implementing mindfulness training. And so is Britain, under the Mindful Nation UK initiative.

It may be a new treatment for Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a difficult disorder to treat. Symptoms include widespread muscle pain, along with fatigue, difficulty sleeping, and memory and mood problems. Researchers at the University of Basel[5] conducted a study of female fibromyalgia sufferers to see if mindfulness meditation would reduce symptoms of fibromyalgia. Measures were made of visual analog pain (self-reported degree of pain from 0 to 100), pain perception, coping with pain, and quality of life. A three-year follow-up was also conducted.

At the end of the 8-week study, the group using mindfulness meditation showed greater benefits than the control group. Improvements were seen in visual analog pain, quality of life measurements, coping with pain, depression, anxiety, and somatic symptom disorder (extreme focus on physical symptoms such as pain or fatigue that causes significant emotional distress and problems with day-to-day functioning).

At the three-year follow-up, researchers found sustained benefits for all the measurements. It suggests that mindful meditation may be a long-term benefit for female fibromyalgia patients.

It helps you make better decisions

Why do people make bad decisions, and continue to make bad decisions? They stay in bad relationships, hold on to plummeting stocks, and keep trying to fix up that old junker instead of buying a good car. They continue to “throw good money after bad” because of something call the sunk-cost bias. We don’t like to think we were wasteful or that our initial investment (in that relationship, stock or that car) is a loss.

A series of studies by INSEAD and The Wharton School[6] have found that mindful meditation can help overcome this bias, so people can make more rational decisions. Meditation clears the mind and fosters awareness of the present. You’ll focus on the information available in the present moment and ignore some of the history that worsens the sunk-cost bias.

In the studies, better decision making came with just 15-minute focused breathing meditation; meditation that repeatedly told participants to focus on the sensations of breathing. Afterwards they showed more ability to ignore to sunk costs. Researchers suggest a two-step process. First mediation focused participants on the present and less on the past and future, which led to less negative emotion. Less negative emotion helped them let go of sunk costs.

Getting started with meditation

If you are not sure where to start, a great resource is the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA. From the home page, under “Free Guided Meditations” select “Guided Meditations.” Here there are several guided meditations that you can listen to online or download to you phone or tablet. Longer guided meditations are available under the “Weekly Podcast at the Hammer” link.

References

[1] Jared T. Ramsburg, Robert J. Youmans. Meditation in the Higher-Education Classroom: Meditation Training Improves Student Knowledge Retention during Lectures. Mindfulness, 2013; DOI: 10.1007/s12671–013–0199–5

[2] Ivana Buric, Miguel Farias, Jonathan Jong, Christopher Mee, Inti A. Brazil. What Is the Molecular Signature of Mind–Body Interventions? A Systematic Review of Gene Expression Changes Induced by Meditation and Related Practices. Frontiers in Immunology, 2017; 8 DOI: 10.3389/fimmu.2017.00670

[3] Rebecca Erwin Wells, Gloria Y. Yeh, Catherine E. Kerr, Jennifer Wolkin, Roger B. Davis, Ying Tan, Rosa Spaeth, Robert B. Wall, Jacquelyn Walsh, Ted J. Kaptchuk, Daniel Press, Russell S. Phillips, Jian Kong. Meditation’s impact on default mode network and hippocampus in mild cognitive impairment: A pilot study. Neuroscience Letters, 2013; 556: 15 DOI: 10.1016/j.neulet.2013.10.001

[4] D. J. Good, C. J. Lyddy, T. M. Glomb, J. E. Bono, K. W. Brown, M. K. Duffy, R. A. Baer, J. A. Brewer, S. W. Lazar. Contemplating Mindfulness at Work: An Integrative Review. Journal of Management, 2015; 42 (1): 114 DOI: 10.1177/0149206315617003

[5] Grossman P, Tiefenthaler-Gilmer U, Raysz A, Kesper U, Mindfulness Training as an Intervention for Fibromyalgia: Evidence of Postintervention and 3-Year Follow-Up Benefits in Well-Being. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics. 2007;76:226–233 DOI: 10.1159/000101501

[6] A. C. Hafenbrack, Z. Kinias, S. G. Barsade. Debiasing the Mind Through Meditation: Mindfulness and the Sunk-Cost Bias. Psychological Science, 2013; 25 (2): 369 DOI: 10.1177/0956797613503853


An earlier version was published at blog.thewellnessuniverse.com on March 12, 2018.