The Science of Meditation

Encouraging Medical Meditation


Mindfulness and mediation are increasingly popular buzzwords.  Historically, most cultural traditions have long promoted quiet contemplation, prayer, seclusion or meditation for peace of mind and clarity.    Until recently, evidence for the benefits of mediation was limited to subjective self-reported improvements in mood.  Indeed, practices and results vary and are highly individual.  Because of the individual nature of meditative experience, the benefits of Yoga and meditation have been considered a “soft science.”   However, some new scientific studies are using modern technology to gather concrete evidence.

Scientists are finding mindfulness and meditation practices cause profound changes in the brain.  One recent Harvard Medical School affiliated study found; “Meditation group participants reported spending an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness exercises. The analysis of MR images, which focused on areas where meditation-associated differences were seen in earlier studies, found increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.”  In addition, “Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress.”[i]

Recent and ongoing research has also found that mindfulness and mediation have profound effects on neurochemistry.  Meditators enjoy inhibited cortisol levels[ii], increased DHEA[iii] and Melatonin[iv]:  The cumulative effects of which can regulate sleep, and decrease the effects of stress and aging. [v]

One of the most exciting applications of mindfulness utilization is in healthcare itself.  Harvard Medical School Professor Herbert Benson, is the pioneer in connecting the effects of stress related illness.  He has published studies noting that more than one third of medical residents experience burnout.  “They exhibit lower levels of mindfulness and coping skills and higher levels of depression symptoms, fatigue, worry, and stress.”  His assertion is that, “These preliminary findings should encourage programs to initiate and study curricula that combine mindfulness and self-awareness coping strategies to enhance or protect against burnout as well as cognitive behavioral coaching strategies to offset symptoms of burnout when present.”[vi]

In a subsequent study, the same group confirmed that mindfulness and self-compassion was inversely correlated with burnout in pediatric residents. [vii]

The question then becomes how do we implement mindfulness in the high stress environment, such as healthcare?  For now, the first step is to learn more about the daily routine of our target audience to identify opportunities to implement mindfulness techniques that are workable in their busy lives.


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