Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2
How Meditation Renews Your Mind
This article will present some really interesting research studies on how meditation promotes not only health and wellness, but provides you with a renewed mind. The bible is layered with clues on the importance of having a sound mind and how to dwell within to obtain those results. Here we will see how science is actually validating the importance of meditation in our daily Christian lives.
Using a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine, Eileen Luders, a researcher within the Department of Neurology at the University of California Los Angeles School of Medicine, searches for evidence that meditation changes the physical structure of the brain. Until a short time ago, this idea would have seemed absurd. “Scientists used to believe that the brain reaches its peak in adulthood and doesn’t change-until it starts to decrease in late adulthood,” Luders says. “Today we understand that everything we do, and each experience we have, actually changes the brain.” Indeed, Luders finds quite a few distinctions among the brains of meditators and nonmeditators. In a study published inside the journal NeuroImage in 2009, Luders and her colleagues compared the brains of twenty-two meditators and 22 age-matched nonmeditators and found how the meditators had additional gray matter in regions within the brain which are critical for attention, emotion regulation, and mental flexibility. Increased gray matter typically makes an area within the brain more efficient or powerful at processing information. Luders believes the increased gray matter within the meditators’ brains should make them better at controlling their attention, managing their emotions, and making mindful choices.
Why are there variations between the brains of meditators and nonmeditators? It’s a simple matter of training. Neuroscientists now know that the brain you have today is, in part, a reflection of the demands you’ve placed on it. People learning to juggle, as an example, develop more connections in areas of the brain that anticipate moving objects. Medical students undergoing periods of intense learning show similar changes in the hippocampus, a place of the brain important for memory. And mathematicians have more gray matter in regions important for arithmetic and spatial reasoning.
More and more neuroscientists, like Luders, have started to think that learning to meditate isn’t different from learning mental skills such as music or math. Like anything else that requires practice, meditation is a training program for the brain. “Regular use may strengthen the connections between neurons and also can make new connections,” Luders explains. “These tiny changes, in 1000s of connections, often leads to visible changes in the structure of the brain.” Those structural changes, consequently, create a brain that is better at doing whatever you’ve asked it to do. Musicians’ brains could improve at analyzing and creating music. Mathematicians’ brains may get better at solving problems. What do meditators’ brains get better at doing? This really is where it gets interesting: It depends on what sort of meditation they do.
Over the past decade, researchers have found that if you practice focusing attention on your breath, the brain will restructure itself to make concentration easier. Should you practice calm acceptance during meditation, you’ll develop a brain that’s more resilient to stress. And if you meditate while cultivating feelings of love and compassion, your brain will develop in such a way that you spontaneously feel more connected to others.
For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Romans 7:22-24
New research shows that meditation can help you improve your ability to concentrate in two ways. First, it can cause you to be better at focusing on something specific while ignoring distractions. Second, it will cause you to be more effective at noticing what is going on around you, giving you a fuller perspective on the present moment.
Some of the most fascinating research on how meditation affects attention is being conducted by Antoine Lutz, PhD, an associate scientist at the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, in collaboration with Richard Davidson as well as the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin. Their work has shown that concentration meditation, by which the meditator focuses complete attention on one thing, such as counting the breath, activates regions of the brain which are critical for controlling attention. This is true even among novice meditators who receive only brief training. Experienced meditators show even stronger activation in these regions. This you’d expect, if meditation trains the brain to pay attention. But extremely experienced meditators (who have in excess of 44,000 hours of meditation practice) show less activation in these regions, even though their performance on attention tasks is better. The explanation for this, in Lutz’s view, is that the meditation training can eventually help reduce the effort it takes to focus your attention. “This would be according to traditional accounts of progress in meditation practice. Sustaining focus becomes effortless,” Lutz says. This implies that people can immediately enhance concentration by learning a simple meditation technique, and the practice creates all the more progress.
Researchers label our inability to notice things in our environment as “attentional blink.” Most of us experience this throughout the day, when we become so caught up in our own thoughts that we miss what a friend says to us and have to ask her to repeat it. A more dramatic example would be a car accident caused by your thinking about a conversation you just had and not noticing that the car in front of you has stopped. If you were able to reduce your attentional blink, it would mean a more accurate and complete perception of reality-you would notice more and miss less.
To test whether meditation reduces attentional blink, participants had to notice two things occurring in rapid succession, less than a second apart. The findings, published in PLoS Biology, reveal that the meditation training improved the participants’ ability to notice both changes, with no loss in accuracy.
What explained this improvement? EEG recordings-which track patterns of electrical activity in the brain, showing precise moment-by-moment fluctuations in brain activation-showed that the participants allocated fewer brain resources to the task of noticing each target. In fact, the meditators spent less mental energy no-ticing the first target, which freed up mental bandwidth for noticing what came next. Paying attention literally became easier for the brain.
As a result, Lutz and his colleagues be-lieve that meditation may increase our control over our limited brain resources. To anyone who knows what it’s like to feel scattered or overwhelmed, this is an ap-pealing benefit indeed. Even though your attention is a limited resource, you can learn to do more with the mental energy you already have.
A man is commended according to his good sense, but one of twisted mind is despised. Proverbs 12:8
Reduce Your Stress
Research also exhibits that meditation will help individuals with anxiety disorders. Philippe Goldin, director of the Clinically Applied Affective Neuroscience project in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University, uses mindfulness meditation in his studies. The overall practice is to become aware of the present moment-by paying attention to sounds, your breath, sensations in your body, or thoughts or feelings-and to observe without judgment and without trying to change what you notice.
Like most of us, the participants in Goldin’s studies suffer from all forms of disturbances of the mind-worries, self-doubt, stress, as well as panic. But those with anxiety disorders feel unable to flee from such thoughts and emotions, and find their lives overtaken by them. Goldin’s research shows that mindfulness meditation offers freedom for those with anxiety, partly by changing the way the brain responds to negative thoughts.
In his studies, participants take an eight-week mindfulness-based course in stress reduction. They meet once weekly for a session and practice on their own for up to an hour a day. The training includes mindfulness meditation, walking meditation, gentle yoga, and relaxation with body awareness as well as discussions about mindfulness in everyday life.
Before and after the intervention, participants have their brains scanned inside an fMRI (or functional MRI) machine, which looks at brain activity instead of the structure of the brain, while completing what Goldin calls “self-referential processing”-which is, considering themselves. An fMRI scanner tracks which brain areas consume more energy during meditation and, therefore, which regions are more active.
Interestingly, the brain-scanning sessions could provoke anxiety even in the calmest of people. Participants must lie immobilized on their back with their head held inside the brain scanner. They rest their teeth on dental wax to prevent any head movement or talking. They are then asked to reflect on different statements about themselves that appear on a screen before their face. A few of the statements are positive, but lots of them are not, for instance “I’m not OK just how I am,” or “Something’s wrong with me.” They are exactly the sorts of thoughts that plague people with anxiety.
The brain scans in Goldin’s scientific studies demonstrate a surprising pattern. After the mindfulness intervention, participants have greater activity in a brain network linked to processing information when they echo on negative self-statements. In other words, they pay more attention to the negative statements than they did prior to the intervention. And yet, they also demonstrate decreased activation within the amygdala-an area associated with stress and anxiety. Most important, the participants suffered less. “They reported less anxiety and worrying,” Goldin says. “They put themselves down less, and their self-esteem improved.”
Goldin’s understanding of the findings is that mindfulness meditation teaches people with anxiety how to handle distressing thoughts and emotions without being overpowered by them. Almost all people either push away unpleasant thoughts or obsess over them-both of which give anxiety more power. “The goal of meditation is not to remove thoughts or emotions. The goal is to become more aware of your thoughts and emotions and learn how to move through them without getting stuck.” The brain scans suggest that the anxiety sufferers have been learning to witness negative thoughts without going into a full-blown anxiety response. Research from other laboratories is confirming that mindfulness meditation can lead to lasting positive changes within the brain. For instance, a recent study by Massachusetts General -Hospital and Harvard University put 26 highly stressed adults through an eight-week mindfulness-based course in stress reduction that followed the same basic plan as Goldin’s study. Brain scans were taken before and after the intervention, together with participants’ own reports of stress. The participants who reported decreased stress also showed decreases in gray matter density in the amygdala. Previous research had exposed that trauma and chronic stress can enlarge the amygdala and make it more reactive and more connected to other areas of the brain, resulting in greater stress and anxiety. This study is one of the first documented cases showing change ocurring in the opposite direction-with the brain instead becoming less reactive and more resilient.
Together, these studies provide exciting evidence that small doses of mental training, along the lines of an eight-week mindfulness course, can create important changes in one’s mental well-being.
To put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Feel More Compassionate
We typically consider our emotional range as something which is fixed and unchanging-a mirrored image of the personality we’re born with. But research is revealing the possibility that we might be able to cultivate and increase our ability to feel the emotional state of compassion. Researchers have found that feeling connected to others is as learnable as any other skill. “We are trying to produce evidence that meditation can cultivate compassion, and that you can see the transform in both the person’s behavior and the function of the brain,” Lutz says.
So what does compassion appear like in the brain? To find out, Lutz and his colleagues compared two groups of -meditators-one group whose members were experienced in compassion meditation, and another a group whose members were not-and gave them the same instructions: to generate a state of love and compassion by contemplating someone they care about, expand those feelings to others, and finally, to feel love and compassion without any specific object. As each of the participants meditated in-side the fMRI brain scanners, they were occasionally interrupted by spontaneous and unexpected human sounds-for instance a baby cooing or a woman screaming-which may elicit feelings of care or concern.
All of the meditators showed emotional responses towards sounds. But the more experienced compassion meditators showed a larger brain reaction in locations important for processing physical sensations and for emotional responding, particularly to sounds of distress. The research workers also observed a rise in heart rate that corresponded towards the brain changes. These findings propose that the meditators had been having a real empathic response and that the experienced meditators felt greater compassion. In other words, compassion meditation seems to make the brain more naturally open to a connection with others.
These meditation techniques may have benefits beyond the experience of spontaneous compassion. A study by psychology professor Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, as well as the University of Michigan, found that a seven-week lovingkindness meditation course also increased the participants’ daily experience of joy, gratitude, and hope. The more participants meditated, the better they felt. Participants also reported a greater sense of self-acceptance, social support, purpose in life, and life satisfaction, while experiencing fewer symptoms of illness and depression. This study provides strong evidence that chipping away at the illusion of separation can open us up to a far more meaningful connection to life.
Commit to Change
As the evidence for the benefits of meditation grows, certainly one of the most important outstanding questions is, How much is enough? Or, from the angle of most beginning meditators, How little is sufficient to see positive change?
Researchers agree that many of the benefits happen early on. “Improvements in the brain take place at the very beginning of learning,” Luders says. And several studies show change in a matter of weeks, or even minutes, among inexperienced meditators. However other reports suggest that experience matters. More practice leads to greater changes, both in the brain and in a meditator’s mental states. So while a negligible investment in meditation can be worthwhile to your well-being and mental clarity, committing to the practice is the best way to experience the total benefits.
So, as I’ve repeatedly stated throughout my articles. As Christians we’ve had our eyes covered by a veil that has prevented us from discovering the deep inner revelations of God through the Holy Spirit. We see in this article that science has made wonderful discoveries on the effects that mindful meditation can have on believers and non believers. However, for believers the result is the renewing of the mind. Let’s get on the bandwagon and begin the journey towards the Kingdom of God within.