If you look online for meditation guides, you’ll come across many articles with vague guidelines without any research backing. Many people are curious about the physical and mental benefits of meditation, but don't know where to start.
But is there a way to meditate that's clinically shown to be effective? If so, what were the positive changes? Can meditation really reduce stress? And does it physically change the brain?
In this article we'll answer all of these questions as we review medical studies on meditation to determine if it has proven health benefits or not.
We'll share a popular YouTube video that tested whether meditation could change the brain in only six weeks, and explain if there is one specific way to meditate that's more effective than others.
Does Meditation Actually Reduce Stress?
Meditation has been studied in clinical trials for its effects on stress, general mental wellness and immunity.
A clinical trial published in the Behavioural Brain Research journal found that a 13-minute daily guided meditation session was more effective than a 13-minute podcast listening session for stress and emotional regulation. The meditation group also had enhanced cognitive function relative to the podcast group after 8 weeks.
The study describes the guided meditation session as focusing mostly on breathwork and full body scans. Breathwork means a conscious focus on the pattern of breath which helps reduce negative external thoughts. A “full body scan” is a conscious focus on different parts of the body, which involves releasing tension in that specific body part.
A 2011 medical review found that mindfulness meditation was associated with improved psychological health. Study participants who practiced mindfulness meditation experienced an improved sense of well-being and fewer negative emotions.
Mindfulness meditation is a practice which involves consciously training the brain to be focused on the “present.” Participants may focus on their senses such as smell and hearing, while consciously releasing any thoughts that enter their mind.
Another review published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences journal found that mindfulness meditation may directly enhance immune system function. The practice was also reported to reduce inflammatory processes in the body.
One revealing medical trial compared the benefits and brain activity of focused, mindfulness meditation with simple relaxation, and found that only the mindfulness practice changed brain wave activity and relaxed the nervous system.
Based on the available research, we conclude that meditation has significant research backing for its ability to induce relaxation and relieve stress. But can it physically change the brain? We'll review in the next section.
How Does Meditation Change the Brain?
An engaging video with over 50,000 views from a YouTube channel called "Goodful" tested the effects of 6 weeks of meditation on the brain using MRI scans, and reported incredible results. The whole video is worth a watch for anyone considering meditation:
Is There a Best Way to Meditate?
The clinical trials we reviewed, as cited in the first section, suggest that mindfulness meditation is one of the more effective meditation practices.
While there are many different ways to meditate, such as breathwork and meditation music, the research suggests that the active focus involved in mindfulness meditation has benefits to the brain and body.
Mindfulness meditation involves sitting in a peaceful environment and consciously releasing or “observing” passing thoughts. The goal is to remain indifferent to the thoughts that enter your head, and to recognize that they’re involuntary. This process teaches the ability to dissociate from thoughts.
This type of meditation practice can favorably change brain wave activity and even increase grey matter in the brain.
It makes sense that mindfulness meditation may have greater health and mental benefits than a simple relaxation practice. Lying down with your eyes closed may be a great way to destress, but it’s not really “meditation” which is more of an active process. Meditation is about training the mind to minimize the effect of the ego and involuntary thought.