Self Improvement Techniques: Science and Meditation

BuddhaThese days, more and more studies are being conducted to try and find out exactly why self improvement techniques like meditation and mindfulness practice can help us alleviate stress, anxiety, depression, and trauma. Such practices are also proving to be an invaluable tool for those on the path of addiction recovery.

For instance, in a study published earlier this month in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Catherine Kerr, lead researcher and director of translational neuroscience at Brown University, found that:

When we are depressed, attention is “consumed by negative preoccupations, thoughts and worries”. Instead of disengaging and moving on, we find ourselves digging deeper into negative thought patterns.

Mindfulness gives patients control over this habitual chain via a “body scan” technique, where patients systematically engage and disengage with the sensations in each part of the body. As they do so, alpha rhythms, which organise the flow of sensory information in the brain, increase and decrease. Kerr describes this as a “sensory volume knob” and it is this flexible focusing skill which, the paper proposes, “regulates attention so that it does not become biased toward negative physical sensations and thoughts, as in depression”. Early Buddhists advanced a similar theory 2,500 years ago in a famous practice text called “Mindfulness of the body and breath”.

Another fascinating investigation of meditation and the brain was conducted last year, when over twenty experienced meditators participated in an experiment at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston. The experiment was a collaboration between a young Harvard neuroscientist named David Vago and a Buddhist scholar and mindfulness meditation teacher named Shinzen Young. The results were startling. The researchers found that veteran meditators ‘had lost the ability to “let their minds wander” because they had long ago shed the habit of entertaining discursive narrative thoughts. They no longer worried about how their hair looked, or their to-do lists, or whether people thought they were annoying. Their minds were largely quiet. When thoughts did come – and they did still come – these subjects reported that the thoughts had a different quality, an unfixated quality’.

For more studies, check out our Resources page, where you’ll find a list of links to thought-provoking articles and research!

–SV

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