The Science of Meditation

In a post earlier this month, I highlighted the trend of mindfulness programs being adopted in more and more modern workplaces. A growing number of companies are banking on these programs, speculating that investing in the physical and psychological health of their employees through mindfulness may offer a solid return in increased productivity and reduced employee health costs.

Now that mindfulness practice has entered the mainstream, there’s been an explosion of research on the effects of mindfulness on the mind, body and brain.  Here’s a media round-up highlighting some of the most interesting findings:

Neurons
Image of neurons by Zeiss Microsocpy CC BY 2.0

I’ve already flagged some of the positive neurological effects of meditiation, and there’s plenty more chatter on the web on that subject.

Forbes contributor Alice Walton provides a good beginners overview of these benefits, including decreased activity in the default mode network (associated with mind wandering and rumination), and volume changes in cell matter in key parts of the brain associated with capacity to manage stress and anxiety.  Walton also highlights studies that have identified psychological benefits, such as managing depression (as effective as antidepressants), improving concentration and attention, reducing anxiety, and treating addiction.

Huffington Post’s Meredith Melnick offers up a handy infographic – ‘The Body on Meditation’, which illustrates the neurological benefits as well as positive effects on the heart, blood pressure and immune system.

But there’s even more interesting research on how meditation might combat decline of our actual DNA.

CNN recently showcased Jo Marchant’s Mosaic.com article on research that shows mindfulness practice could actually help slow down the aging process. At the vanguard of this work is collaborative research between Nobel Prize winning biochemist Elizabeth Blackburn and University of California psychiatrist Elisa Epel that measured the impact of perceived psychological stress on the length of human telomeres.

Isolated by Blackburn in the 1970s, telomeres are the protective caps of our chromosomes that protect our DNA. These naturally shorten over time, and when they become too short, our cells lose the ability to divide and the aging process takes hold.

telomeres
Telomere Photo by AJC ajcann CC BY 2.0

In the early 2000s, Blackburn studied a group of mothers managing the stress of caring for chronically ill children.  Blood samples showed that the mothers had significantly shorter telomeres and lower levels of the protective telomerase hormone than a less stressed control group. In the most severe cases the effects could be correlated to about an extra decade of aging.  This and a variety of similar studies have continued to show the link between psychological stress and aging.

Building on this work, Blackburn and Epel are collaborating with teams around the globe on studies looking to measure the effectiveness of certain interventions – such as diet, exercise and social support – in protecting telomeres and maintaining levels of telomerase.

And now mindfulness has been added to the mix.  While there are skeptics, results are promising, with one study showing a 30 per cent increase in telomerase in subjects that participated in a three-month mindfulness course.

All this is exciting, but there are alternative views out there tempering the meditation craze. In his wry New York Times op-ed, business contributor Adam Grant reminds us that studies suggest meditation is no more effective in lowering stress than drugs, exercise or other behavioural therapies. He also discusses the non-meditative mindfulness work of Ellen Langer, which focuses on encouraging conditional over absolute thinking.  A cushion may not always be required.

Signing off for now – off for a 15-minute telomere stretch…

For a good overview on the science of meditation, including telomeres, check out this video from those asapSCIENCE guys.   

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