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The benefits of meditation

Meditation is probably as old as human civilization itself. While the test of time could be proof positive demonstrating the benefits of meditation, scientific study has yielded evidence that meditation is good for us as well.

Dr. Herbert Benson: Meditation Research Pioneer

In the late 1960s, Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School conducted scientific studies to test the health benefits of meditation. (As an aside, his findings motivated me to begin my own meditation practice.) He determined that meditation could be used successfully in treating physiological problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and migraine headaches, as well as autoimmune diseases, such as diabetes and arthritis. As they meditated, he found that his test subjects’ heartbeats and breathing had slowed, their blood lactate levels decreased, and their brains had increased in alpha activity, which is a sign of relaxation. Dr. Benson also found that meditation was helpful in stopping or slowing obsessive thinking, anxiety, depression, and hostility.

Resetting the Set Point

In the “Set Point Study,” scientists found that each of us has a natural “set point” in our brains for both good and bad emotions. The study found that people accustomed to being happy have more activity in the front portion of their frontal lobes. Meanwhile, the right side is more active in people who worry or are anxious. Even when major events occur in a person’s life, such as winning the lottery, scientists have found that brain chemistry shifts back to its normal set point within about six months.

One of the most dramatic examples of what can be called “resetting the set point” was a study done with people who had suffered paralysis from spinal cord injuries. Although they could no longer walk and often suffered from depression in the short run, within six months of the accident, these individuals had returned to their normal mental set points and their original state of happiness. In other words, no matter what happens in a person’s life, the shift back to the set point inevitably takes place.

The good news is that you CAN change your set point through meditation. One study demonstrated that after only eight weeks of meditating for approximately one hour a day, six days a week, test subjects reported that they had become happier. Follow-up tests showed that these individuals’ set points had changed — to the extent that their normal level of mental happiness had been raised. In addition, they had become better at picking up emotional cues from others, and they reported developing more empathy towards others’ emotions. On the physical level, researchers found that the meditators’ immune system responses had improved.

Science confirms what longtime meditators have known all along: A consistent meditative practice decreases stress and increases well-being.

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