If you’re a scientist or questioner like me, understanding the research on meditation can help you overcome obstacles in your practice

Dorien Herremans
Sep 11 · 8 min read
Image by Caleb George, source: Unsplash

It was 12:45 p.m. I was getting changed for swim class in my grandmother’s living room. I could hear the clock ticking. Just an hour ago, my grandmother had taken the little key out of the cupboard and used it to wind the clock—a daily ritual. We had an hour and a half lunch break back then. There was time to bike home with my friends, to eat a home-cooked meal, read a comic book, go play in the garden, and maybe chill with my grandmother, who always laid on the couch a bit after doing the dishes. It was a quiet world. It was a happy world. It was also a world I wanted to escape — as much as I would want to get back it to later on in life.

Life has changed quite a bit for me. Sitting at my office desk right now, as a professor in AI and data science in Singapore, I fondly think back to my slow-paced ‘80s childhood. Is it just me, or has the world started to spin out of control? Are we more occupied by our computer screens than the people around us? It is certainly easy enough to forget what life is really about when I get sucked into my email inbox, much to my regret. Yet, I am pretty sure that life is not about meeting work deadlines or getting a promotion, but about fully wanting to embrace life and be present — just as I was back then during that lunch break.

I have always been excited by self-experimentation in the spirit of self-improvement: years of a raw vegan diet, long-distance running, getting a Ph.D., moving to London, San Sebastian, Antwerp, and finally Singapore. Many tools and habits have come and gone, but I want to share the importance of one tool that has proven invaluable to me over the years: meditation.

In 2004 I took a transcendental meditation (TM) course. I was an engineering student back then, and the nice graphs of the scientifically proven benefits of meditation shown by the guru during my first TM class impressed me. But in the last 15 years, perhaps what has been more impressive is how this simple technique has repeatedly saved me from being lost in life and kept me from being overwhelmed by the demands of our modern world.

When everything seems overwhelming, sitting down for 20 minutes twice a day will actually increase your focus and paradoxically allow you to achieve more.

As a professor, I know personal experiences only go so far, so let me share some researched benefits of meditation practice and its positive effects. I wanted those benefits, and science clearly shows that they are within reach if you meditate regularly. I found that tremendously motivating in sticking with my own meditation practice and that motivation helped me overcome the obstacles that might have otherwise derailed me.


The Science of Meditation

My bread and butter is in researching scientific papers and understanding what these often complexly written texts want to convey. So for the skeptics among you, or those just needing that little nudge to get started with meditation, I want to summarise a few interesting scientifically proved advantages of meditation.

Looking at academic publications in PubMed and Google Scholar, one of the most systematically studied forms of meditation is transcendental meditation (TM) (Xiong & Doraiswamy, 2009). TM is my personal favourite as well; however, there are many tools and meditation styles available for everybody. If you have never meditated and do not know how to start, just head over to the app store and pick any of the available tools, such as Headspace, Calm, InsightTimer, or any other. As you explore with more techniques, your personal preference will develop.

But let’s get to it. What can meditation do for you?

Improved brain function

The positive effects of TM include higher clustering in recalled items and better performance in intervening arithmetic tasks, increased speed on the Embedded Figures Test, and more accuracy in the Road and Frame Test (Pelletier, 1974). Meditators also seem to have better visual attention, as shown by Holley and team in 2010.

In fact, meditation can physically change the anatomy of your brain: Luders et al. (2009) found larger gray matter volumes in meditators in the right orbitofrontal cortex, the right thalamus, and the left inferior temporal gyrus of the brain.

Better heart health

Heart disease remains the number one cause of death. Fear not! Hypertension is one of the many things that can be influenced by meditation. A study performed on 298 college students found that TM meditation decreased the systolic/diastolic blood pressure by -2.0/1.2 overall and lowered stress/anger (Nidich et al., 2009). These results were confirmed by a meta-analysis of 9 randomized controlled trials by Anderson and team (2008) who evaluated the effect of TM on blood pressure. They concluded that a clinically meaningful reduction in blood pressure can be produced by the practice of transcendental meditation. The achieved approximate reduction is approximately 4.7 and 3.2 mm Hg, in systolic and diastolic pressure, respectively.

Since African Americans are often disproportionately represented in studies, Barnes et al. conducted a dedicated study in 2008. In this controlled study, the effect of a 10-minute breathing awareness meditation was examined in a group of 20 participants over 3 months. The ambulatory systolic blood pressure, heart rate, and overnight urinary sodium excretion rate were all recorded to decrease in these participants. The opposite was found in the control group (46 participants), who did not meditate.

Finally, in the randomized controlled trial conducted by Schneider & team (2008), 201 African Americans were randomly assigned to a transcendental meditation program or a health-education group. After 5 years, there was a 43% reduction in risk for myocardial infarction, all-cause mortality, and stroke in the TM group.

Quality of life, less stress

A cross-sectional survey of 347 people by Manocha et al. (2012) showed that long-term Sahaja Yoga meditation practitioners experienced a better quality of life and functional health than the general population.

Solberg and colleagues (2004) studied 27 male meditators and 29 age-matched controls in Norway. They found that melatonin and serotonin (often called the ‘happy chemical’) level reduced for advanced meditators about 1 and 3 hours after meditation. Even for novice meditators, the serotonin level reduced.

Similar results are obtained by Walton (2004), who conclude that cortisol (stress hormone) levels were three times lower in long-term TM practitioners. Finally, Kang and team (2008) showed the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation for reducing stress and anxiety in nursing students. Their study, with 32 nursing students in Korea, showed that the mindfulness meditation program was able to reduce stress levels, as measured by the psychosocial wellbeing index-short form (PWI-SF).

Improved memory

Research by Newberg et al (2010) studied 14 patients with memory loss and found that they also can be helped by an 8-week meditation program, as they exhibited improved cerebral blood flow and memory.

Reduced controlled substance abuse

Three clinical studies showed that Vipassana meditation can reduce substance abuse such as alcohol (Chiesa, 2009). Similarly, anybody thinking of smoking might be helped by mindfulness-based interventions, according to a study by Vidrine & team (2009).

Resilience to psychological trauma

Kimbrough & team (2009) showed that 27 adult survivors of sexual abuse during childhood showed significant reductions in depressive symptoms, post-traumatic stress disorder, (PTSD) and anxiety — after 4, 8, and 24 weeks of an MBSR program and daily home practice of mindfulness skills

Reduction of menopausal symptoms

Meditation therapies and other relaxation methods may alleviate menopausal symptoms, such as vasomotor symptoms, according to a study by Innes & team (2009). They studied a total of 12 randomised clinical trials, with 719 participants in total to reach this conclusion.

Reduction of chronic pain

Rosenzweig & team (2010) conducted a 6-year longitudinal study on 133 patients with heterogeneous chronic pain disorders. Their aim was to examine the effects of a mindfulness-based stress reduction program on chronic pain disorders. The outcome of the study varies for the different conditions: patients with back/neck pain, arthritis, and comorbid conditions experienced the biggest improvement of quality of life and pain intensity. The chronic headache/migraine patients experienced the smallest reduction.

Finally, Rasmussen & team (2010) explored how 31 fibromyalgia (FM) patients reacted to TM plus an individually tailored Ayurvedic diet. After 6 months, compared with a control group, the meditating patients showed significant progress versus the non-meditating patients on six of the seven measures of the FM questionnaire: fatigue, generalized pain, stiffness, tiredness upon rising, anxiety, and ability to work.


How to Stick With Meditation in a Fast-Paced World

Based on all this, meditation seems like a miracle solution. Is it really that simple?

Over the past 15 years that I have been meditating, I have also gone years without. Why is that? Busy lives do not always account for meditation time. It can be enticing to just “solve that one problem at work”; “send that one email”… and before you know it, your break time is over. What I have experienced, though, is that by taking a 20-minute meditation break, I can actually work more rapidly and in a more focused way. So it actually saves time to take a break for mental health!

I have also found that it can be hard to sit down and listen to your own thoughts. It is a confrontation with oneself that requires some discipline. Personally, I have found that meditation log apps such as InsightTimer can help to keep my daily practice going. There is something addictive about maintaining your daily meditation streak, especially if there is social network peer pressure. This may sound counterintuitive, but whatever helps to get keep you meditating!

Another obstacle I have encountered was when I had a long commute and worked at an open-plan office. I had to leave the house at an insanely early hour, so there was no desire to wake up at 5 a. m. instead of 5:30 a.m. just to meditate. In addition to that, there was no space to even sit down with my eyes closed.

After a while, I started wearing noise-canceling headphones and tried meditation on the bus, or on the emergency staircase. It did not work quite so well, but at least it was something.

Finally, I found a church outside of my office building, and I would go and have my lunch there. Now, while I was raised Catholic, my feelings towards the church as an institution are very mixed. During this time, however, the old empty church building offered me a quiet place to wind down briefly during a hectic day and find myself again. In such a fast-paced world, perhaps the bombastic and impressive relics of organized religion can still serve their simple initial purpose.

Meditation has been on my side ever since I discovered it. The benefits of taking these 20-minute “vacations” a day are huge, on both your mental and physical health. Even though it can be hard to follow though in our society, there are ways to help you stick with it. I passionately encourage you to give it a go, as it will change your life for the better.

If you are interested in exploring more of the science, have a look at the survey papers by Balaji et al. (2012); Xiong & Doraiswamy (2009) and Horowitz (2010).

Image by Elizeu Dias, source: Unsplash

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Dorien Herremans

Written by

Assistant Professor at Singapore University of Technology and Design, where she runs a lab on AI for music and audio.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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