Fans of meditation have been claiming for years that the practice reduces stress and lowers your risk of disease. Until recently, however, the available information was only anecdotal; there were no scientifically controlled, randomized studies to support those claims. Now research published in Biological Psychiatry shines additional light on the subject, and demonstrates that mindfulness meditation, unlike a placebo, can alter the brains of participants and improve their health.
Mindfulness meditation requires “an open and receptive, nonjudgmental awareness of your present moment experience,” writes J. David Creswell, who led the study. Creswell is an associate professor of psychology and director of the Health and Human Performance Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University. One challenge in studying meditation has been called the placebo problem. In most studies, one group of participants receive treatment while the another group does not, and participants do not know which group is theirs.
Dr. Creswell and his group of researchers solved the problem in a creative fashion. They recruited 35 unemployed persons, men and women looking for work and under great stress. They drew blood and administered brain scans. Half the participants received training in mindfulness meditation at a residential retreat center. The other half were given a sham training focused on simple relaxation and distraction.
“We had everyone do stretching exercises, for instance,” says Dr. Creswell. The mindfulness group was told to pay close attention to their bodily sensations, even the unpleasant ones. The relaxation group was encouraged to ignore bodily sensations, chattering with each other and the leader.
After three days, all the participants reported feeling refreshed and more prepared to deal with the stress of unemployment. However, followup brain scans demonstrated differences only among the mindfulness group. The scans showed more communication among the parts of the brain that process stress-related reactions and other areas related to calm and focus. Four months later, blood tests revealed much lower levels of inflammation among the mindfulness group, even though most had stopped meditating.
Of course, it is difficult to quantify how much meditation is needed, or for how long, to achieve positive results. But while science continues to investigate, individual practitioners of meditation continue to enjoy the benefits.