Those of you who saw the interesting Catalyst television program on meditation will have been struck by the apparent findings of Dr Graham Phillips in his quest to uncover the science behind meditation.
You no longer have to be a Buddhist to meditate. In fact, elite sports people, top business entrepreneurs and anyone with a functioning brain now use the technique and are reporting substantial benefits. Dr Phillips embarked on a small scale piece of research to assess the impact meditation would have on his brain. To start with his pre-meditation brain was independently assessed through an EEG and an MRI. An EEG measures brain electrical activity, and an MRI measures the brain's structure. He was also put through a rigorous process of brain assessment to look for his memory functioning, his reaction times and his focus.
Current published research tells us that when you meditate your alpha and theta brainwaves increase and other 'busy' parts of your brain activity decrease, allowing you to increase your focus. Advocates suggest that this then improves your concentration, improves your memory and allows you to make faster decisions. The argument is that meditation allows the brain to work more efficiently which means you exert less mental energy and so get less tired. There is also a substantial body of reported feedback related to the positive impact meditation has on those with mental health difficulties. Some studies have concluded that when properly taught and practiced regularly, meditation is as effective as anti-depressants for preventing the relapse of depression.
In addition to possibly improving brain efficiency, Dr Phillips wanted to see if meditation would change the structure of his brain. He embarked on an 8-week meditation process and was reassessed at the end for the impact. His results were fairly seductive in their positive impact. Overall, he was assessed to have improved mental accuracy, a better memory and reacted faster to unexpected events (useful for when you are driving a car, and someone pulls out!).
The really fascinating part, from my point of view, was the evidence that Dr Phillips brain structure had changed. His grey matter had increased, which basically means he had grown new brain cells and potentially is in the process of rejuvenating his brain. This is exciting for someone like me with a fast-aging brain!
The research in this area remains fairly new, and we have a long way to go before we fully understand the negatives and the benefits of meditation. As a word of warning, most in the world of psychology recommend avoiding meditation if you have a history of psychosis or severe/recent trauma as increased internal focus can increase the symptoms associated with these experiences. It is also not a 'magic bullet' and will not transform your life if you have areas of your life that really need to be sorted. What it might do, though, is to assist you to deal with those areas more calmly.
If you are interested in learning meditation and discussing your situation with a psychologist, contact us on 08 9388 9000 or firstname.lastname@example.org (contact page at the top of the website). Also, check out the entire Catalyst program at http://iview.abc.net.au/programs/catalyst/SC1502H017S00.
Below is a brief introduction to get started fro those of you who are eager. I'm off to squeeze in a serious amount of meditation.
A very simple start to a breathing meditation:
- Choose a quiet place to meditate and sit in a comfortable position (any position that is comfortable – the only important thing is to keep a straight back, so no slouching).
- Sit with your eyes softly closed and turn your attention to your breathing.
- Breathe naturally, preferably through the nostrils, without attempting to control our breath, and try to become aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. This sensation is the object of meditation. Try to concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else.
- Take a few deep breathes and let your body settle and relax. Settle the mind and do not watch the business of your mind. Focus on the sensation of the breathing as it enters your nostrils and as it leaves.
At first, your mind will be very busy, and you might even feel that the meditation is making our mind busier; but in reality we are just becoming more aware of how busy our mind actually is. There will be a great temptation to follow the different thoughts as they arise, but try and resist this and remain focused single-pointedly on the sensation of the breath. If you discover that our mind has wandered and is following our thoughts, immediately and gently return to the breath. We should repeat this as many times as necessary until the mind settles on the breath. Start with just a few minutes at a time and build up to around 20 minutes if you can.