We challenge you to leave your mind blank and think about nothing. Complicated, right? However, maybe it is time to start practicing, because this mindfulness hides surprising benefits when dealing with stress, anxiety and even depression. And not only that, a study published this year reveals that when we meditate – and it does not matter if we are experts or novices – measurable changes occur in the brain .
The study, carried out by researchers at Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon Universities, measured the effects of meditation on 35 unemployed and stressed people. Divided into two groups, one group received mindful meditation classes for 3 days, while the other group received a “fake” training to learn to distract themselves by joking and stretching.
After 3 days, all 35 participants reported feeling better. However, the exploration of their brains, as well as the blood tests that were carried out, suggest great differences between both groups.
Those who did meditate for real showed that in their brains there had been greater communication between the brain regions involved in self-control (the left prefontal cortex ) and attention (the default neural network ); and, on the other hand, their levels of IL-6 , a substance related to stress and that could contribute to inflammation processes , had decreased .
These results are reinforced by other studies that suggest that meditation may have the following benefits:
Improves memory and learning
This was revealed in an article published by the Massachusetts General Hospital after studying the brain structure of 16 people through magnetic resonance images (MRI) two weeks before and after having participated in an 8-week program based on Reduction Awareness of Stress.
In addition to weekly meetings that included mindful meditation practice, the participants received audio recordings for the guided meditation practice and were asked to track the amount of time they practiced each day. Brain MRIs were also performed on a control group of non-meditators for a similar time interval.
The meditation group said they spend 27 minutes a day practicing mindfulness. Analysis of the MRI images – which focused on brain areas where changes had been reported in previous meditation studies – revealed increased gray matter density in the hippocampus (learning and memory). None of these changes were observed in the control group.
Less stress and better attention span
A 12-year study conducted by the University of Wisconsin, focused on meditation and compassion, revealed that those who meditate are less prone to stress compared to other people. Another study , this one from John Hopkins University, also reached this conclusion, which supports the idea that the practice of mindfulness reduces the symptoms of depression, anxiety and pain.
Other research, such as one from the University of California , has shown that it is enough to spend a couple of weeks meditating to improve people’s attention and memory. In fact, the study in question showed an increase of 16 points, something not negligible, in the verbal reasoning capacity of the participants in the GRE test, which measures basic skills in the Verbal, Quantitative and Analytical Writing sections.
Better preserve the brain
Another study carried out by the University of UCLA showed that those who meditate frequently keep their brains better as they age compared to those who do not meditate.
This could be verified by seeing that the volume of gray matter in the brain of people who had meditated for an average of 20 years was greater than in those who had not.
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It can help people with addictions
A growing number of studies have shown that, considering its effects on the self-control regions of the brain, meditation can be very effective in helping people recover from various types of addiction.
A study from Texas Tech University, which focused on teaching meditation to smokers, found that those who learned to meditate were more likely to quit after training, compared with patients who followed a standard treatment for disengaging from the snuff.
Meditation may not be a panacea, but there is definitely enough scientific evidence that it can do a lot of good for those who practice it regularly. So, it’s definitely worth at least a try.
If you have some free time in the morning or afternoon (or both), instead of checking your phone or watching TV, try to see what happens if you try to blank your mind. Or at least to focus on your thoughts without prejudice, letting them go without reacting to them. If your studies are right, just a few minutes a day will make a big difference in your life.