As meditation and mindfulness practices are spreading into companies, schools, hospitals, prisons, the military, and into your average home, it’s very important that we pay attention to the actual scientific research behind these ancient practices and their more modern packagings.
In the book, The Science of Meditation – How to Change your Brain, Mind and Body (also titled Altered Traits), psychologist Daniel Goleman and neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson separate the real evidence-based benefits from the hype after going through over 6,000 academic studies on the subject together with their research team. Highlights include affirming that meditation does decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression, that a loving-kindness (metta) type meditation boosts compassion and is good for stress, and that regular meditation practice produces long-lasting benefits in the brain.
Goleman and Davidson stress that the type of benefits and their long term lasting effect does depend, not surprisingly, on the frequency and experience of the meditator. In a nutshell, the more you meditate the more you’ll reap the benefits and generate lasting changes, but the practice still offers valuable benefits for everyone along the experience spectrum.
Benefits of Meditation
Here are some interesting nuggets from their meta-research (the focus here is on beginners, defined as less than 1,000 hours of practice as most are likely to fall into this category) :
- Stress: Sometimes referred to as the alarm clock of the body, the amygdala is the part of your limbic brain that plays a big role in the processing of emotions, survival instincts, and memory, including being involved in turning on the stress response. An MBSR study showed that mindfulness of the breath taught in the course “lowered activity in the amygdala – mainly via faster recovery – and strengthened it in the brain’s attentional networks, while the patients reported less stress reactivity.” 
As always, consistency is key and across studies, it was noted that “more daily practice seems associated with lessened stress reactivity.”  This was also true in studies with fibromyalgia in which patients felt “significant improvements in psychological symptoms[…] and [a lessening of] many of their subjective symptoms.” 
- Chronic pain: “In well-designed research with elderly pain sufferers, MBSR [Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction] proved highly effective in both reducing how much pain people felt and how disabled they became as a result.”  This means it essentially changed how people related to their pain, not the underlying biology, which nonetheless can have dramatic effects on the quality of life.
- Inflammation: Inflammation is a common underlying cause of many diseases and “mindfulness practice, it seems, lessens inflammation day to day, not just during meditation itself.”  The recurring caveat here though is that regular practice is necessary for this effect to be maintained.
- Epigenetics and loneliness: “Loneliness […] spurs higher levels of pro-inflammatory genes; MBSR cannot only lower these levels – but also lessen the feeling of being lonely.”
Simply put, MBSR is an external (epigenetic) intervention that can turn off pro-inflammatory genes, in this case, caused or exacerbated by loneliness. (Epigenetics is the study of changes in organisms through modification of gene expression without changing the underlying DNA sequence, essentially meaning external mechanisms that turn genes “on” or “off.”)
- Telomeres and aging: “A meta-analysis of four randomized controlled studies involving a total of 190 meditators found practicing mindfulness increased telomerase activity.”  (Simply put, telomeres are the caps at the end of chromosomes that protect your cells from aging, like the plastic tip at the end of shoelaces. Increased activity in this case is then a good thing as we want to prevent the tips from continuing to fray and shorten and therefore accelerating aging.)
- Attention: Different kinds of meditation retrains varying aspects of attention, with both long and short term effects depending on the practice. 
Meditation and Mental Health Benefits
Research from John Hopkins University suggests daily meditation may reduce depression and anxiety-related symptoms, including “[appearing] to provide as much relief from some anxiety and depression symptoms as what other studies have found from antidepressants.”  What’s more, research has long shown that meditation as well as exercise can help with depression, but when combining the two, a study showed “striking improvement in depressive symptoms along with increases in synchronized brain activity.” The study showed that “a mind and body combination of exercise and meditation, done twice a week for only two months, reduced the symptoms for a group of students by 40 percent.” 
Some headlines online might make you think mindfulness meditation is the cure-all and end-all and of course, it isn’t. However, the research such as highlighted above points to some incredible effects that could significantly improve mindfulness meditation practitioners’ mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing. I personally came to meditation for stress reduction but experienced life-changing benefits far beyond my expectations, which is why it’s so rewarding for me to teach and watch participants often go through a similar journey.
However, if you are looking for a meditation learning experience beyond a low to moderate intensity practice via an app or a self-help book, such as a retreat or longer course of any kind, make sure that the instructors are well-trained, and that they do a proper intake and evaluation with you to determine if is suitable for you at that time.
Want to get started with meditation? Joining an 8-week online live Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course with me might be for you. Click here to view all my upcoming classes and courses, and of course, don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions.
 Ibid. p.99
 Ibid. p.86
 Ibid. p.172, p.189
 Ibid. p.176
 Ibid. P.177
 Ibid. p.144-45
 “Meditation for Anxiety and Depression?” Johns Hopkins Medicine, 6 Jan. 2014, www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/meditation_for_anxiety_and_depression.
 Lally, Robin. “Exercise and Meditation Together Help Beat Depression.” ScienceDaily, Rutgers University, 10 Feb. 2016, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/02/160210134834.htm.