This is your brain. This is your brain on yoga! Meditation to be exact. New, real, comprehensive studies are being done to prove that meditation does indeed actually transform the circuits of the brain to increase functionality, focus, empathy and happiness. How fabulous! Changes have been seen in the limbic system or the brain’s emotional command center controlling the endocrine and autonomic nervous system, the prefrontal cortex in charge of focus, thoughts and actions, and left-sided anterior region responsible for generating positive emotions. You know, just minor parts of the brain necessary for your overall energetic existence and prosperity.
But maybe you already knew this? Having your uh duh! moment? We can cut these scientists a break, as it’s only just until recently when technology and things like MRI machines could actually scientifically prove what many were just experiencing, see?
It’s a growing field called contemplative neuroscience – the brain science of meditation – and it’s gaining more credibility and perhaps even better, more funding for research. The National Institutes of Health, has upped its grants in complementary and alternative medicine ($300 million in 2007 to an estimated $541 million in 2011) , and has helped establish new contemplative science research centers at Stanford University, Emory University, and the University of Wisconsin, the soon-to-be new home of the world’s first brain imaging lab with adjacent meditation room.
How does meditation work on the noggin?
“We all know that if you engage in certain kinds of exercise on a regular basis you can strengthen certain muscle groups in predictable ways,” [Richard] Davidson says in his office at the University of Wisconsin, where his research team has hosted scores of Buddhist monks and other meditators for brain scans.
“Strengthening neural systems is not fundamentally different,” he says. “It’s basically replacing certain habits of mind with other habits.”
And you’ll never guess who’s been a big proponent of the growing research. Why, the Dalai Lama of course! And he’s actually arranged for Tibetan monks to travel to American universities for brain scans, while also participating in speaking gigs at annual meetings of the Society for Neuroscience, the world’s largest gathering of brain scientists.
Although many of the previous studies had focused on compassion meditation or “lovingkindness”, for scientific purposes, the meditation exercises have been stripped of Buddhist roots.
“This is not a project about religion,” says Davidson. “Meditation is mental activity that could be understood in secular terms.”
So if you were worried about the compassion demons invading your brain and stealing your soul during meditation, you can rest assured that only happens after a sinful round of sun salutes and a few minutes of playing dead.
File this, in the yay for science! folder.
How cool! Is this why I’m addicted to yoga?
Ancient wisdom rocks! Yoga and meditation is a great personal and global strategy to make life better. The magic of beautiful sequences of gentle movement, breathwork and positive messages renew us from the inside out. I suggest preciousretreats.com for a great collection of guided meditations.
Thanks for this very entertaining update on this exciting new field.
You misrepresent the research when you write:
“New, real, comprehensive studies are being done to prove that meditation does indeed actually transform the circuits of the brain to increase functionality, focus, empathy and happiness”
Although a common trope in reporting on science, a good scientist does not try to prove something, rather the goal is to test a hypothesis and report the results regardless of one’s pet hypothesis.
Indeed the article you link to makes this point
“This is a field that has been populated by true believers,” says Emory University scientist Charles Raison, who has studied meditation’s effect on the immune system. “Many of the people doing this research are trying to prove scientifically what they already know from experience, which is a major flaw.”
If the scientific study of yoga is to credible it must follow the protocols of science. Indeed it must be open to the possibility that some cherished yoga beliefs may turn out to be false.
Thank goodness these are finally being done. I have begun teaching lawyers about stress management through yoga and meditation, and they like facts. These are great. Thank you!
Yeah, it is both awesome and frustrating that we are able to gain empirical evidence on the benefits of meditation, and that some need this evidence to believe that it is actually good for them. I feel like our culture is getting further and further away from living and making choices according to how it feels in our bodies.
Our culture is SO far away from posessing skills for well living that is going to take another 5000 years to get back to the beginning so we may start again.
Meditation is a practice that I teach in and out of my classrooms, on and off the yoga mat. The recipients are always apapreciative.
Karen AKA The Kitchen Yogi
When David asserts “that some need this evidence to believe that it is actually good for them” I am not sure if he is asserting that this is a bad thing. Humans have an incredible capacity for self deception and delusion and science can act as a check on these propensities. I think we can embrace both the joy of yoga practice and the rigorous discipline of science.
I love your final paragraph! Hilarious! Great info, thanks for sharing this post.
Good point, Jeremy. That is why I said ‘both awesome and frustrating’, since science can serve as both protection against the world of gurus and meditation, but it often feels like the truth is not the truth until someone does a study on it.
Fantastic idea. It is a surprise to know how yoga works on the brain which is scientifically proved.
I’m really excited that science has started to embrace the spiritual side of yoga. You’re right- it’s a “duh” moment for me, but not to a lot of people! Yoga has historically been supported by doctors, etc for health benefits (for obvious reasons), but I think many have seen the spiritual aspect as a bit silly.
Personally, this evidence comes at a really fitting time for me. My friends and I are all avid readers, and we like to share book recommendations with each other. Right now, I’m reading a memoir by Michele Hebert about her spiritual training in 1970s San Francisco. It’s called “The Tenth Door” – http://www.rajayogis.net
Now I can convince my non-yogi friends that meditation is actually beneficial and that the book is worth reading!
Very informative, thanks for sharing this.
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