There appears to be more and more non-religious youth taking interest in yoga and meditation. I’d certainly be willing to bet that there are more yoga studios in Nova-Scotia today than there ever have been. The wellness community is growing. And this makes sense given the high-paced and ever more stressful environment in which we live.

With that said, I still sense that meditation is considered by many as taboo. Whether this taboo manifests itself as a subtle roll-of-the-eyes, or a convenient loss of interest conversation, meditation is still something one only likes to brings up around other people who meditate. Why is this?

Perhaps it’s due to meditation’s religious origins, and the strong associations that exist between meditation and spirituality or a belief in the supernatural – perspectives that seem to be decreasing in popularity in an age of technology, science, and secularism. I believe that there is wide-spread perception of meditation as being purely a tool for spiritual practice.

Since I’m sure that meditation means different things to different people, for the purposes of the post I will define meditation very generally as Wikipedia does so well :

“Meditation is a practice in which an individual trains the mind or induces a mode of consciousness, either to realize some benefit or as an end in itself.”

Why should one train one’s mind ?

Simple. The mind is what perceives stress and reacts to it; the mind is what witnesses your thoughts and reacts to them; the mind is what attends or gets distracted.

I’ve had meditation described to me as training to be aware of your external (people, work, sights, sounds, smells) and internal (thoughts) environment without reacting to them. A kind of learned stoicism.

Training your mind is then alike to teaching yourself to control the way you respond to the world around you, including your thoughts. This is powerful.

More specifically, this is applicable. Meditation can be a powerful tool for improving one’s everyday wellbeing, creativity, productivity, etc. These are things that obviously anybody living in North-America in the 21st century should care about.

First, let’s define a few terms. Open meditation (OM) is the practice of having a broad, non-judgemental awareness of the contents of consciousness – similar to mindfulness meditation. Focused meditation (FM) is the practice of focusing on one object on consciousness intently (e.g. the breath) – similar to concentrative meditation.

Ainsworth et al. (2013) looked at the effects of both OM and FM on different components of attention – orienting, alerting, and executive control. They found that both these meditation techniques improved executive control in participants. These results are especially important as many mood and anxiety disorders are characterized by deficits in executive control, suggesting that meditation may have therapeutic potential for these disorders by way of its effect on attention.

In their 2006 review, Cahn and Polich concluded that the brain imaging results of several meditation studies imply changes in allocation in attention with mediation. Further, the authors determined that meditation elicits changes specifically in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). The former is involved in cognitive and emotional processing including error-detection, whereas the latter, being one of the more recently evolved functional regions of the brain, is involved in higher level cognitive functions such as working memory, impulse control, planning and abstract reasoning.

A recent review by Posner et al. (2015) posits that there are two fundamental approaches to the improvement of attention and cognitive functioning: attention network training and brain state training. Network training improving attention by way of completing and practicing with brain training tasks or games. State training involves inducing a brain state that is conducive to improved cognition and attention. The best examples of state training include exercise and meditation. The review summarized the results of a couple experiments looking particularly at the effects of integrated body-mind meditation (IBMT) on stress, attention and subjective mood. In a one week study, compared to controls undergoing a relaxation treatment, the 30 mins/day of IBMT group showed improved executive function, decreased stress hormone cortisol secretion in response to an arithmetic task, and improved mood. A second study, in which groups underwent either IBMT or relaxation training for a month long period, showed that the IBMT group had decreased stress hormone cortisol secretion at baseline.

Finally, in one particularly interesting study summarized by Posner et al. (2015), smokers and non-smokers were recruited for stress reduction (i.e. not quitting smoking), then assigned to either relaxation training or IBMT for two weeks. At the end of the training period, the IBMT group was found to smoke 60% less than the relaxation training group. And remember, this is without them even going into the study with the intention to quit! Further, an increase in the activation of the ACC was observed in the smokers from the IBMT group. Before training, the smokers actually had less ACC activation than the non-smokers, suggesting that the increase in activation observed after training might be indicative of an increase in self regulation, which might have contributed the subsequent 60% decrease in smoking.

Meditation research is in its infancy. A concrete theoretical framework – how does meditation yield the benefits it does and why, exactly – is lacking. And, research methods can be improved. However, the collection of subjective and scientific evidence for the potential benefits of meditation for wellbeing and optimal performance should excite anyone with a mind about its future.

“Your mind is all you truly have. So it makes sense to train it.”

– Sam Harris

 

References

Ainsworth, B., Eddershaw, R., Meron, D., Baldwin, D. S., & Garner, M. (2013). The effect of focused attention and open monitoring meditation on attention network function in healthy volunteers. Psychiatry Research, 210(3), 1226–1231. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2013.09.002

Bush, G., Luu, P., & Posner, M. (2000). Cognitive and emotional influences in anterior cingulate cortex. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4(6), 215–222. doi:10.1016/S1364-6613(00)01483-2

Cahn, B. R., & Polich, J. (2006). Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies. Psychological Bulletin, 132(2), 180–211. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.132.2.180

Posner, M. I., Rothbart, M. K., & Tang, Y. (2015). Enhancing attention through training. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 4, 1–5. doi:10.1016/j.cobeha.2014.12.008

Tang, Y. Y., & Posner, M. I. (2013). Tools of the trade: Theory and method in mindfulness neuroscience. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8, 118–120. doi:10.1093/scan/nss112