What is it about meditation that invokes so much mystery? When asked, people conjure images of difficult lotus positions, strange beliefs and exotic settings. Of course, none of that is necessary and the realities of a person sitting comfortably on their living room floor for a few minutes isn’t quite as interesting.
Confounding public perceptions even more are the religious connotations that are sometimes connected to meditation. This only serves to further alienate people who could potentially benefit. This is unfortunate since it can easily be argued that prayer in any religion is a form of meditation. The practice of meditation has a long history in almost every major historical civilization and religion, yet there is so much that is not known.
When we look at the past philosophies and beliefs associated with meditation, we can understand the perspectives of the ancients according to contemporary science. Science has not replaced the old views; so far it has mostly served to strengthen many of the ancient beliefs. However, modern science has been able to fill in essential details of underlining processes.
It has been shown that meditation can increase pain tolerance (see below for sources). One study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience (2011), showed that meditation caused a 40% lowering of pain intensity and a 57% lowering of pain unpleasantness. That is impressive when you consider that morphine and other pain relieving drugs only lower these symptoms by about 25%. This relief came from subjects with no previous meditation experience who were taught basic meditation in a total of four 20 minute classes.
A number of studies that have utilized modern imaging technology, such as fMRI, have clearly shown that meditation increases blood flow to the brain and, with extended practice, actually makes significant changes to the brain’s physical structure. These changes can lead to increased efficiency and function in certain parts of the brain, such as heightened visuospatial processing and increased focus.
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