Meditation was once seen as a “fad”, something that people only practiced after coming back from mystical or spiritual retreats in Asia. It was a novelty at best, and in some cases, downright mocked or rejected because of its origins in Buddhism, Hinduism, and other Eastern religions.
Now, thankfully, Western culture grown a lot more enlightened to the benefits of meditation. More and more wellness centers, fitness centers, and other health-conscious places are incorporating meditation into their training programs. Spas and retreats are cropping up all around the world, with meditation at the core of their relaxing and mind-clearing practices. Meditation has even become a daily practice in the workplace thanks to influential professionals touting its virtues.
But how much does meditation actually work? Is there any way to quantify the benefits, or is it just a vague “meditate and you’ll feel better”?
One study  decided it was time to get some cold, hard data on what meditation can actually do!
A team of researchers from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory worked with scientists from the University of North Texas to quantify the data. Specifically, they used heart rate variability to monitor the state of the brain before, during, and after meditation.
“Heart rate variability” refers to the slightly random variation in the intervals between heartbeats. The brain sends signals to the sinus node, which has been referred to as the “pacemaker of the heart”, to either increase or decrease the firing rate (beating) of the heart. The two branches of the nervous system (sympathetic and parasympathetic) generate the fluctuations or variations in heart beat.
Scientists use heart rate variability to measure the heart’s responses to a number of stimuli, including stress. According to the scientist leading the study, “HRV time series is very sensitive to changes in the physiological state of the brain and the new data processing system, called dynamic subordination technique (DST), can quantify the changes in HRV and relate these directly to brain activity, such as produced by meditation.”
The scientists looked at a number of factors:
The ability to concentrate
The ability to sustain focus
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Stress throws off the normal heart rate variability, so simply processing the HRV time series can help researchers to detect levels of stress.
However, the researchers used this to determine the effects of meditation on the heart—calculating how much meditation decreased the fluctuations in heart rate variability caused by stress. They found some fascinating results:
Yoga meditation was more effective at reducing stress than Chi meditation.
Long-term meditation practice can make the meditation-induced physiological changes permanent. Simply put, the benefits of meditation can stick around for as long as you practice it!
People who meditate have stronger executive control, also known as the ability to carry out goal-oriented behavior. Meditation strengthens the cognitive abilities and complex mental processes required for this goal-oriented behavior.
The above-mentioned study concluded with a fascinating statement:
“From a physiological perspective, meditation constitutes a coupling of the functionalities of the heart and brain. We are only now beginning to understand how to take advantage of the coupling of the two.”
Think about that! The more scientists understand about the relationship between the heart and the brain, the more they’ll be able to create treatments that sync the two for the purpose of reducing stress. While the military was researching this primarily as a means of treating PTSD symptoms, the truth is that this discovery could have far-reaching benefits outside the military.
The same cognitive functions that control warrior readiness and mental/emotional resilience can translate into a healthier working professional or parent. It takes a lot of executive control to be a police officer, a surgeon, or an accountant, all professions that carry a lot of stress. By understanding the connection between the brain and heart, we may be able to find new ways to decrease the amount of stress involved in these and all other professions.
They say that every battle is won or lost in the mind, but that extends to so much more than just war! Every day, we have a battle with our stress, the pressures of our daily lives, even the responsibilities we carry. The more we understand ourselves and our minds, the better our chances of winning that battle.
Stress doesn’t have to rule your life, but as we’ve seen here, meditation can be a wonderful tool to help you decrease not only the mental and emotional effects of stress, but also the physiological! Now’s the time to take up meditation—it can change your life for the better.
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