Meditate on this!
Sitting in total silence, palms facing upward and eyes closed, mouthing the traditional "Ommmmm" sounds, would seem a practice for monks and other ascetic humans. Turns out, various types of mindful meditation (no Tibetan temple needed) can fit perfectly into the lives of a 9-to-5 business man or woman. And plenty of science suggests the benefits can be great. Here are seven enlightening benefits.
Dulls the ouch
Though your back or other body part may be feeling the aches, part of that pain may actually be in your head. In fact, a study published in the April 6, 2011, issue of the Journal of Neuroscience found just 80 minutes of meditation training could cut pain perception nearly in half. In the study, volunteers were given a pain test before and after the meditation training; brain scans using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of pain-reception regions revealed significant changes before and after meditation, too.
Another study, this one published in 2010 in the journal Pain, found that people who regularly meditated found pain less unpleasant. The reason? Apparently their brains are busy focusing on the present and so anticipate the pain less, blunting its emotional impact. Researchers are uncertain as to how meditation changes brain function over time to result in these pain-dampening effects.
Improves your sex life
That's right, ladies, a little mindfulness can go a long way in the sack. Research published in 2011 in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that mindfulness meditation training, in which a person learns how to bring thoughts into the present moment, can enhance a woman's sexual experience. How, you ask? By getting them out of their heads. Turns out, self-judgmental chatter often fills a gal's mind during sex, keeping her from the full sexual experience. In the new study, college women who meditated were quicker to become aroused when viewing erotic photos compared with non-meditating women.
Keeps you out of mental traps
Doing the same thing in the same way doesn't always work, whether it be trying to get out of a bout of depression or solve a dispute with a friend or colleague. Turns out, mindfulness meditation can help a person to steer clear of such mental traps that drag out problem solving, suggests a study published online May 15, 2012, in the journal PLoS ONE. After just a few weeks of mindfulness training, volunteers were better at switching strategies for problem-solving than volunteers who were not taught the technique.
"This difficulty of letting go of old, habitual and non-adaptive ways of responding for the sake of better ones may underlie many of our everyday difficulties," said study researcher researcher Jonathan Greenberg Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. Greenberg added, "A married couple that repeatedly gets into the same quarrels and arguments may be able to break the cycle and look at things in a fresh perspective," Greenberg suggested. "Clinicians may be better able to offer new ways of looking at a clinical situation. Negotiators may be better at finding novel ways to settle disputes. Managers may be better able to think 'out of the box' and replace existing non-adaptive procedures with new and improved ones."
Boosts mental toughness
Meditation can protect a person from the debilitating effects of some emotional events, like going off to war, researchers reported in February 2010 in the journal Emotion. In the study, U.S. marines preparing for deployment spent two hours each week practicing mindfulness meditation training for eight weeks. Compared with the marines who didn't meditate, those who did showed improved moods and working memory, which allows for short-term retrieval and storage of information. The training seems to allow individuals to stay alert and in the moment without becoming emotional, giving them a kind of "mental armor."
Helps you keep your cool
Ever wondered how the Dalai Lama remains kind and compassionate despite the violence tearing apart his homeland? The key to the exiled Tibetan leader's unremitting magnanimity may be meditation, which can increase a person's ability to feel empathy and benevolence for others, according to a study detailed March 26, 2008, in the journal PLoS ONE.
Both novice and experienced meditators in the study practiced compassion meditation (widely practiced by Tibetan leaders), which involves focusing on loved ones and directing loving-kindness toward them, and then extending that goodwill to all beings indiscriminately. When participants heard emotional sounds, such as a distressed woman calling out or a baby laughing, they showed more brain activity in brain regions linked to empathy while meditating than when not meditating.
"I think this can be one of the tools we use to teach emotional regulation to kids who are at an age where they're vulnerable to going seriously off track," said study researcher Richard Davidson.
With cellphones, iPads, laptop computers and the ability to essentially contact anyone at any time, distractions abound today. How to stay focused? You got it, Buddhist meditation may do the trick, according to a study published in Psychological Science in 2010. Study participants, relatively experienced meditators, were better able to make fine visual distinctions and sustain visual attention during a demanding, yet tedious, computer task after Buddhist meditation training.
The seemingly nonsensical Zen practice of "thinking about not thinking" may also boost your attention span by freeing the mind of distractions. A brain-scan study detailed in the Sept. 3, 2008, issue of the journal PLoS ONE. Results showed that Zen-meditation training, in which a person stays alert and aware of their breathing and posture while dismissing wandering thoughts, led to different activity in a set of brain regions known as the "default network," which is linked with spontaneous bursts of thought and wandering minds. Their brains were also quicker to return to this "Zen mode" after being distracted compared with those who had no meditation training.
Bulks up the brain
A few Om chants may make you smarter, suggests research on the effects of meditation on the brain. A UCLA study published in March 2012 in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that long-term meditators (who practiced various techniques, including Samatha, Vipassana, Zen and more) have larger amounts of gyrification, or folding, of the brain's cortex than people who don't meditate. The extra folds may allow the meditators to process information faster than others.
Another UCLA study found that people who meditate also have stronger connections between brain regions and show less age-related brain shrinkage. The bulking-up in white matter was seen throughout the brain, the researchers reported in July 2011 in the journal NeuroImage. Past work has also shown more gray matter in certain brain regions in meditators compared with non-meditators. (White matter comprises the long, spindly appendages on some neurons that transmit electrical signals used by brain cells to communicate; gray matter is made up of the cell bodies that essentially use the information shared by the white matter to "do the math.")
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Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.