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What science says about meditation: It improves your focus and emotional control.


Stashed in: Emotion, Focus!, Addiction, Brain, Meditate, Awesome, Letting Go, Be here now., Anxiety, Mindfulness, Meditation, Mental Health, Apps

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Matt, do you use the Headspace app?

Mindfulness meditation has been practiced by Buddhists for thousands of years. But today, in our electronic, distraction-filled world, the ancient practice seems to be having an unlikely moment of trendiness — so much so that it's the focus of a new app that recently garnered a New Yorker profile.

The app, called Headspace, claims that by emphasizing attention on the present moment, "regular mindfulness practice, through meditation, is an effective treatment for stress, worry, lack of focus, relationship problems, addictions and more."

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"Mindfulness meditation has been shown to cause distinct changes in brain structure and brain function," says Yi-Yuan Tang, a Texas Tech neuroscientist who studies meditation and recently reviewed the state of the research for the journal Nature.

Mindfulness meditation originated in Buddhist traditions and was first popularized in the West in the 1970s and '80s. 

In essence, it's any exercise that encourages you to focus on your sensations and thoughts in the present moment. As Henepola Gunaratana puts it in Mindfulness in Simple English, "One’s attention is carefully directed to an intense examination of certain aspects of one’s own existence."

In practice, this can take a huge number of different forms. Most often, people begin meditating by sitting upright for 10 minutes or so and focusing entirely on their breathing. The idea is to concentrate your attention on the many physical sensations that accompany each breath: the flow of air through your nostrils, the expansion of your chest cavity, the movement of your diaphragm.

It's okay if your thoughts wander — at first, they almost certainly will — but it's good to be aware of their wandering. For most people, daily practice makes this sort of meditation come more naturally over time.

This is a fact. I have experienced awesome healing through this meditation

Can you elaborate on the healing you felt through meditation?

How does meditation change the brain?

Meditators' brains look different from non-meditators' :

Apart from focusing your attention on the present moment, mindfulness meditation preaches accepting and letting go of negative emotions. Practicing this sort of behavior, scientists say, seems to improve meditators' ability to control their emotions even when they're not meditating. It seems to give meditators more emotional ballast, making them less easily swept up in the ups and downs of the present.

In experiments, for instance, meditators are less thrown off by emotionally unpleasant photos (say, showing a car crash or a violent scene) while completing an unrelated task. FMRI-based studies show that after two months of meditation, these sorts of images trigger less activity in the amygdala, the brain region involved in sadness and anxiety. In survey-based studies, people report being less afraid of their emotions and experiencing less anger and stress in their daily lives after a multiweek meditation course, compared with people who didn't take the course.

Consequently, there's some hope that meditation might be a useful tool in treating things like anxiety disorders and addictions. It's very early on, but a few small studies have suggested that it can reduce cravings in long-term smokers and improve the symptoms of people with general anxiety disorder, compared with non-meditators. Still, we need longitudinal studies that track and compare meditators versus non-meditators over time to have a better idea of whether it really works.

To learn more about the brain mechanisms underlying these changes, about a decade ago, neuroscientists began using fMRI machines and other brain scanners to look inside the minds of people who'd been regular practitioners of mindfulness meditation for years. When they did, they found that their brains looked noticeably different from non-meditators'.

More than 20 of these sorts of studies have been conducted since. Some of their conclusions have varied, but a recent meta-analysis led by Kieran Fox of the University of British Columbia found that on average, practiced meditators tend to have distinct differences in eight brain areas compared with non-meditators.

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