The Science of Meditation

Elyssa Macfarlane
The Science of Meditation

Picture someone who regularly practices meditation and I probably don’t look like them. Half the time I’m wearing Vans, a tee-shirt and a leather jacket to head to some bar on Main St, and the other half i’m dressed in some version of a business casual outfit in anticipation of some meeting or event. I don’t imagine I really act like someone who regularly engages in the practice either. I’m relatively blunt in nature and wouldn’t be caught dead reading a Yoga magazine (not because I have anything against these types of publications, but because I’m rarely interested in their content and would probably spend the time reading Wired).

With that said, there’s a reason why I named this site Meditations on Tech. The definition of the word Meditation doesn’t refer to the formal exercise. Rather, it’s “a written or spoken discourse expressing considered thoughts on a subject”. That, along with Marcus Aurelius’ book Meditation, made the site’s name an easy decision- regardless of whether I practice or not, the word holds an inherent presence in my life.

With that said, meditation has also been a part of my life from a very early age. Both of my parents are frequent practitioners, though I only started to engage in my own practice about two years ago. It didn’t take much effort or time for me to get hooked, and now I’d say I typically try to meditate on a daily basis. Making time for myself to work on my focus and control my thought process became a regular item for my daily to-do list, and I’ve found it extremely beneficial for alleviating the number of stresses and hurdles life tends to throw at one these days.

Just recently when I was out hanging out after work with a friend, who works in the tech industry as a business analyst, the conversation diverted to whether wellness in the work place is just a placebo for being happy at a job (spoiler: research shows that it actually doesn’t have an impact in making you happier at all- and once you reach a threshold of being able to live a half decent life, a salary doesn’t hold much impact either. The items that really hit home for happiness at work are autonomy over one’s work and schedule, proper utilization, environment, and opportunity for growth).

“I just don’t see the evidence that meditation has an impact on someone” my friend said, knowing I meditate frequently. “Ok, but have you even looked and seen what research exists in the first place? Because I’m one hundred per cent sure the answer is absolutely not” I replied, laughing while I took another sip of what would certainly qualify as the worst vodka water ever.

I was correct in my assumption but jokes aside, this conversation made me feel compelled to take a look into the academic research and what the proven impacts of meditation might be. As I dug deeper, I was impressed by some of what I found and figured I’d share this on MoT.

As it stands, there are more than 400 scientific studies showcasing the many benefits of meditation. When I say scientific studies, I don’t mean they’re coming from some BS bluhhhh publications that no one has ever heard of. I’m referring to sources like the American Medical Association’s JAMA Internal Medicine and the American Heart Association’s Journal Stroke and Hyper-Tension. The list of impacts these institutions have listed is huge, ranging from ones that one might easily imagine are correlated to meditation, such as stress relief and better mental health, but the list goes as far as UCLA placing a firm stance in their STEM newsroom on how research proves that meditation can slow the progression of HIV in a human.

But this is simply an overview. Showing how meditation has different impacts on certain parts of the brain relies on neural imaging and electroencephalography. This monitors and shows the elctric activity taking place during differing stages of meditation.

For example, open monitoring, a category of meditation that focuses on objectively observing thoughts and experiences dispassionately, has been shown to create Theta waves with electrical patterns slowing to around 6-8 Hz (associated with being close to the onset of dreams and memory tasks) and alpha-2 brain waves at 10-12Hz in the back of the brain (associated with turning off certain areas of the brain, the visual system in this instance). As a result, open monitoring is seen as an effective mechanism for drawing one back during times of extreme stress, where they are able to stabalize themselves to the present.

Another form of meditation known as automatic self-transcending meditation has the EEG reading how neural connections within different areas of the brain, such as the pre-frontal cortex, are able to better promote better learning and decision making when one engages regularly in practice. This has also been show to calm the almyga dala which, when hyper-stressed, makes you react to small glitches throughout the day and challenges throughout your day (a common theme for all of you working in fast-paced corporate environments). During transcendental meditation, your brain waves have been shown to shift to alpha-1 at 8-10Hz, which is mostly observed in the front portion of the brain in the pre-frontal cortex. This translates to the mind being deeply rested, reflective, and wide awake- a very useful state for helping one strive at work IMHO.

I strongly believe that transcendental meditation is great for activating parts of the brain tied to creativity, stress release, and decision making simply because I’ve lived the experience myself, first hand.

I feel like I didn’t need to write this piece to know and understand its deep-rooted impact on certain aspects of one’s life, but I was curious about the state of research in the world regarding this topic. More so, I hope that this piece can help another experience these sorts of achievements too. That’s all.