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What Does Neuroscience Know About Meditation?

There are still many unknowns, but the practice seems to improves attention and memory

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Meditation, a practice of training the mind, has a place in many cultures. Some people meditate as part of their faith, others because they believe it does them good. While it may be tempting to dismiss claims that meditation can treat depression or boost the immune system, there is some evidence that meditation has benefits.

For Vox, Joseph Stromberg writes about some of the scientific studies on meditation. The practice has been linked with improved focus and emotional control and there is even indication that it changes a person’s biology. "Mindfulness meditation has been shown to cause distinct changes in brain structure and brain function," Yi-Yuan Tang, a neuroscience at Texas Tech, told Stromberg. Tang recently reviewed much of the neuroscience research on mindfulness meditation — a version of meditation and focuses thought on the present moment — in Nature

Brain imaging studies have shown that practiced meditators may have an increase in tissue in a brain region that appears to involve attention and impulse control, for example. However brain imaging experiments in general are notoriously hard to interpret

Other researchers have published findings that people who meditate might be kinder than those who don’t and that meditation might effect metabolism and the immune response

However, like many studies in this area, the numbers are small. This makes it hard to draw robust conclusions. 

Stromberg writes:

One big question is how much these effects vary person to person, and why. "People respond to mindfulness meditation differently," Tang says. "These differences may derive from experiential, temperamental, personality, or genetic differences." Still, he and others aren't exactly sure.

How much meditation one needs and how practiced one should be in the practice are also variables that researchers haven’t evaluated thoroughly yet. Using meditation to treat depression or addiction is far from a reality — if it ever could be one. 

Still, no one thinks it’s a bad thing to give the brain a rest once in a while. For Scientific American, Ferris Jabr writes about the benefits of mental downtime, whether it takes the form of naps, daydreaming or meditation.

What research to date also clarifies, however, is that even when we are relaxing or daydreaming, the brain does not really slow down or stop working. Rather—just as a dazzling array of molecular, genetic and physiological processes occur primarily or even exclusively when we sleep at night—many important mental processes seem to require what we call downtime and other forms of rest during the day. Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life.

All in all, the hints that it may be a good thing are intriguing enough to give meditation a try. 

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