Meditation - Medicine for the Mind

Summer 2016, Living Well Magazine

by Adj. Assoc. Professor Sanjay Raghav

In Eastern traditions tracing back to ancient times, the mind has been deeply studied and researched, leading to the revelation that the ‘mind’ is merely a bundle of thoughts, a by-product of desires and feeling incomplete.

When looking beyond the mind, our true nature is bliss; but due to the outward projection of the mind we keep seeking happiness in the material world, only when one desire is fulfilled the next one props up, creating a vicious cycle and leading to a lack of fulfilment. To step out of this cycle, one can observe their thoughts attentively through mindfulness and meditation.

When people start meditating, they are often surprised to notice the many thoughts constantly running through their head, but this realisation is a positive part of the process, it’s the first time they are connecting with something beyond the mind and thoughts – the observer, beingness, consciousness, awareness or true self.

The initial days of meditation can be frustrating – instead of observing the thoughts, one can get lost in them, like a dog without a leash following a scent! However with consistent practice and patience, one will start to experience glimpses of awareness and silence between the thoughts. Gradually this gap increases and one can stay in awareness beyond the meditation practice. With less intruding thoughts, greater clarity is obtained, decision-making improves and wisdom dawns in.

There is an ever-growing interest in the medical field around meditation. In the last 25 years there has been a tremendous amount of evidence to support the benefits of meditation for various diseases, from mental health disorders to cancer (1-4). My recent search on PubMed returned more than 6,000 articles on this topic.

Meditation helps in reducing stress levels, which is both a cause and component of most diseases; it can lead to impaired immune response and various metabolic syndromes, autoimmune disorders and even cancer.

With modern tools, neuroscientists are now able to unravel some mysteries of the brain and how it functions in different states.

A joint study in Jan 2015 of researchers from UCLA and ANU Canberra, found that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged. Participants who’d been meditating for an average of 20 years had more grey matter volume throughout the brain, although older meditators still had some volume loss compared to younger meditators, it wasn’t as pronounced as the non-meditators. “We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating,” said study author Florian Kurth. “Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain.” It supports the hypothesis that meditation is brain-protective and associated with a reduced age-related tissue decline (5).

In ancient texts the mind is compared to a ‘Mad Drunk Monkey’, so controlling and taming the mind is not easy – it requires training. Mind wandering or daydreaming is not only a common activity, present in roughly 50% of our waking life, it is also associated with less happiness, ruminating and worrying about the past and future.  Mind wandering is also known to correlate with neural activity in a network of brain areas that support self-referential processing, known as the default-mode network (DMN) or Me centre (6)! This network has been associated with processes ranging from attention lapses, to anxiety, to clinical disorders such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Alzheimer’s disease. In fact some studies have demonstrated that increased connection and activity in parts of the DMN are correlated with major depression and other mental illnesses (7). The network activates “by default” when a person is not involved voluntarily. Many philosophical and contemplative traditions teach that ‘living in the moment’ increases happiness. One potential way to reduce DMN activity is through the practice of mindfulness meditation. One of the most interesting studies published in 2011, carried out at Yale University, found that mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the default mode network (DMN) (8). Further studies have again proved that meditation, through its quieting effect on the DMN, appears to do just this (9). This provides a unique understanding of possible neural mechanisms of meditation.

While the scientific community keep gathering evidence that supports the good effects of meditation, we shouldn’t wait for it. Pick a time, every day, to sit in meditation and tap in to the bliss within. One thing is sure, there are no ill effects of meditation, so there is nothing to lose!

References:

1. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depressed individuals improves suppression of irrelevant mental-set. Greenberg J, Shapero BG, Mischoulon D, Lazar SW. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2016 Nov 9

2. The Effects of Mind Subtraction Meditation on Breast Cancer Survivors’ Psychological and Spiritual Well-being and Sleep Quality: A Randomized Controlled Trial in South Korea. Yun MR, Song M, Jung KH, Yu BJ, Lee KJ. Cancer Nurs. 2016 Nov 4

3. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction as a Stress Management Intervention for Cancer Care: A Systematic Review. Rush SE, Sharma M. J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med. 2016 Aug 3.

4. Mindfulness-based interventions for coping with cancer. Carlson LE. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2016 Jun;1373(1):5-12.

5. Forever Young(er): potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation on gray matter atrophy. Luders E, Cherbuin N, Kurth F. Front Psychol. 2015 Jan 21;5:1551.

6. The brain’s default network: anatomy, function, and relevance to disease. Buckner RL1, Andrews-Hanna JR, Schacter DL  Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2008 Mar;1124:1-38.

7. Differential association of default mode network connectivity and rumination in healthy individuals and remitted MDD patients. Lois G, Wessa M. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2016 Nov;11(11):1792-1801

8. Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Dec 13;108(50):20254-9. Brewer JA1, Worhunsky PD, Gray JR, Tang YY, Weber J, Kober H

9. Meditation leads to reduced default mode network activity beyond an active task. Garrison KA1, Zeffiro TA, Scheinost D, Constable RT, Brewer JA. Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 2015 Sep;15(3):712-20.