Health TEDTalks

4 scientific studies on how meditation can affect your heart, brain and creativity

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May

Many people have tried to sell me on the idea of meditating. Sometimes I try it, and have an incredible, refreshing experience. But usually, as I close my eyes and focus on my breathing, while I know that I’m supposed to be letting all thoughts go, more and more fly through my mind. Soon I have a laundry-list of “to-dos” in my head … and then my legs fall asleep. It’s all downhill from there.

Today’s TED Talk, however, might actually convince me to give meditation another shot.

“We live in an incredibly busy world. Our pace of life is often frantic, our minds are always busy, and we’re always doing something,” says Andy Puddicombe at the TEDSalon London Fall 2012. “The sad fact is that we’re so distracted that we are no longer present in the world in which we live. We miss out on the things that are most important to us. The crazy thing is, people assume that’s just the way life is. But that’s not really how it has to be.”

In this talk, Puddicombe — who is as equally as turned off by incense as me — shares the fascinating story of how he become a monk, and gives a convincing argument for why it is worth it to take 10 minutes a day to refresh the mind.

“Most people assume that meditation is all about stopping thoughts, getting rid of emotions, somehow controlling the mind, but actually it’s much different than that,” says Puddicombe. “It’s more about stepping back, seeing the thought clearly — witnessing it coming and going — without judgment, but with a relaxed, focus mind.”

To see a demonstration, with juggling, watch this surprising talk. And after the jump, four recent scientific studies that bear out that there might actually be something to this meditation thing.

For years, meditation fans have said that the practice keeps them healthy. But a new study, published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes in November 2012, actually tested this. For the study, 201 people with coronary heart disease were asked to either (a) take a health education class promoting better diet and exercise or (b) take a class on transcendental meditation. Researchers followed up with participants for the next five years and found that those who took the meditation class had a 48% reduction in their overall risk of heart attack, stroke and death. It’s an initial study, but a promising one. [Time]

Is meditating a good way to increase creativity? Maybe, but it depends on what kind. Researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands looked at the way two types of meditation — focused-attention (for example, focusing on your breath) and open-monitoring (where participants focus on the both the internal and external) — affected two types of creative thinking — the ability to generate new ideas and solutions to problems. In a study published in April 2012 in Frontiers in Cognition, they revealed that the participants who practiced focused-attention meditation did not show improved results in the two creativity tasks. However, those who practiced open-monitoring meditation did perform better at task related to coming up with new ideas. [Meditation Research]

Researchers at UCLA wanted to study the brains of people who had been meditating for years, versus those who had never meditated or who had only done it for a short period of time. They took MRI scans of 100 people — half meditators and half non-meditators. They were fascinated to find that long-time meditators showed higher levels of gyrification (a folding of the cerebral cortex that may be associated with faster information processing). In a study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in February of 2012, they shared that, the more years a person had been meditating, the more gyrification their MRIs revealed.  [UCLA Newsroom]

Distractions are everywhere. But can meditation help a person better navigate through them? A computer scientist at the University of Washington teamed up with a neuroscientist at the University of Arizona to test this. The pair recruited 45 human resources managers, and gave a third of them eight weeks of mindfulness-based meditation training, a third of them eight weeks of body relaxation training and a third of them no training at all. All the groups were given a stressful multitasking test before and after the eight weeks. In a study published in the Proceedings of Graphics Interface in May of 2012, they showed that the mindful-mediation group reported less stress as they performed the multitasking test than both of the other groups. [Washington.edu]

So, how do you feel about meditation?

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