Meditation and the science of changing your mind

To change the quality of our lives, it is necessary to change the quality of our minds. Science has confirmed that meditation is a way to make that change.

Written by: Jack Davey

Art by: Lisa

Our minds are prone to wander, with their attention carried away by each thought that pops into consciousness. A 2010 study in the journal Science confirmed this tendency and found that participants were less happy when lost in thought. The authors concluded, “a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

This finding points to a profound truth about the human mind and the origins of negative emotion, but the authors concluded their study without mentioning that we can avoid paying the emotional cost of a wandering mind.

Activity in an area of the brain called the “default-mode network” is a cognitive fingerprint of being lost in thought and correlates with a decrease in well-being. This brain activity can be reduced by interrupting discursive thought and instead paying closer attention to the character of the present moment — to the sights and sensations arising in consciousness. This, in essence, is the practice of mindfulness meditation: the commitment to think less and notice more.

The practice of mindfulness has become increasingly popular in Western culture. Four out of 10 adults in the US claim to meditate and corporations — including Google, Apple, and Goldman Sachs — have started introducing mindfulness programs for their employees. While the benefits of mindfulness meditation have been recognised in Eastern tradition since antiquity, the practice is finally being adopted by the West and tested by science.

Brain scans of experienced meditators confirm that mindfulness meditation reduces activity in the default-mode network and correlates with the participants’ subjective well-being. Interestingly, this effect persists outside of the meditation practice, indicating that the equanimity reported by practitioners of mindfulness meditation can be maintained during normal waking consciousness, and that this stable state of well-being has a neurobiological basis. Like training our body to be fitter, it seems that we can train our mind to be happier.

In a recent study published in the journal Psychiatry Research, meditation was tested for its ability to reduce stress in participants suffering from Generalised Anxiety Disorder. Participants were subjected to the Trier Social Stress Test — a gruelling test in which subjects must give an eight-minute presentation from memory in front of several stern-faced judges and then spend five minutes counting back from 1,022 in increments of 13, starting from scratch each time they fail. Under these extremely stressful experimental conditions, meditators produced lower levels of biomarkers associated with stress relative to a control group, indicating that mindfulness meditation could be used to increase the psychological resilience of those suffering from anxiety.

The science of meditation is still in its infancy after being held back by the initial prejudice of scientists against a practice that was considered “spiritual” and therefore unscientific. The initial scepticism is now giving way to a recognition of the remarkable potential of meditation to improve our mental health and well-being. Like eating better, exercising more, and sleeping well, practising meditation could soon become another piece of common-sense advice for living a healthy and happy life.

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