29 Scientific Benefits of Meditation: What the Research Tells Us
There are many benefits of meditation practice. In recent decades, quite a bit of research has come forth to suggest mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation can help us in a number of ways. From physical benefits like reducing heart rate to cognitive benefits like increasing working memory, there are many ways in which mindfulness practice can help us in our lives.
As a Buddhist meditation teacher, I have seen the benefits of practice in the lives of my students and community. However, anecdotal evidence isn’t quite enough sometimes. Here we’re going to look at published research surrounding meditation and mindfulness. If you’re interested in leading mindfulness for groups or kids, check out our Mindfulness Exercises for some ideas!
Physical Benefits of Meditation
Although we often think of meditation as a spiritual practice or something we do for the mind, there are many physical benefits of meditation practice. Here are nine powerful ways that meditation can improve your physical health.
A 2016 study found that meditation practice significantly reduced the intensity of pain and unpleasantness of pain in the body. Perhaps most interesting is that this effect was not mitigated by the presence of naloxone, a drug that blocks the opioid receptors. This suggests that meditation can reduce pain without acting upon the opioid receptors, and may pave the way for a deeper understanding of non-addictive pain management.
2. Mindfulness Lowers Blood Pressure
In 2013, Hughes, et al. published a study that found mindfulness practice reduced blood pressure. Following their study participants for two years, their findings suggest mindfulness practice may be an effective treatment or supplement to medication in treating individuals with high blood pressure.
3. It Lowers Heart Rate
A study published by the Association of Humanitas Medicine took a look at the heart rate and respiratory rates of individuals practicing mindfulness meditation. The researchers found that the decrease in both heart rate and respiratory rate was significant for 6-8 months after the mindfulness-based intervention.
4. The Body Heals Faster
In one of the older studies related to this field, researchers discovered guided imagery practice helped improve postoperative stress and wound healing. Much of this is due to the nature of meditation practice to ease anxiety, thus lessening the stress response of the body while healing.
5. Meditation is an Anti-Inflammatory
In 2013, Richard J. Davidson found that meditation reduces inflammation all the way down to the cellular level. In a study at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, the team found an extraordinary benefit of meditation: it actually changes the genes acting upon cellular structure in the body, reducing inflammation.
6. It Helps You Digest Your Food
Mindfulness has been shown many times to help people with inflammatory diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome. A study published in the journal Inflammatory Bowel Diseases found that participants who engaged in a mindfulness-based intervention showed increased effectiveness of digestion, less anxiety in relation to their condition, and an overall increase in quality of life. This was an 8-week mindfulness course, and these resultsben were observed six months later in study participants.
7. Your Immune System Strengthens
Mindfulness meditation can strengthen your immune system, increasing its function. A 2003 study published in Psychosomatic Medicine had people participate in an eight week mindfulness meditation course, finding that individuals had increased immune function when meditating when compared with the control group.
8. Meditation Helps Prevent Asthma
A meta-analysis published in August 2017 in the Journal of Asthma found significant evidence to suggest meditation increases quality of life in people with asthma, as well as helping relieve symptoms. The study authors conclude their research with a call for further studies, but this is a great step toward understanding this condition.
9. Mindfulness Can Ease Premenstrual and Menopausal Symptoms
The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine published a meta-analysis in October 2006 investigating the medical benefits of meditation, looking specifically at mindfulness meditation. Among their findings was that meditation, meditative prayer, and yoga improved symptoms of premenstrual syndrome and menopause.
Psychological Benefits of Meditation
There are many ways practice can help the psychological state. These benefits include reductions in anxiety and stress levels, increased creativity, and better self-esteem. If you’re interested in getting started with meditation, check out our free 30 Day Meditation Challenge.
Harvard Health reports that mindfulness meditation can help fight insomnia. Meditation can help you fall asleep more easily, and sleep more soundly. Many people find a period of meditation before bed is helpful, but these studies actually show meditation practice at any point during the day actually benefits our sleeping habits.
11. It Reduces Anxiety and Stress
Meditating to reduce anxiety and stress may not be something new to you. A core Buddhist teaching is that we meditate to see clearly and end dukkha, or stress. Hofmann, et al. found decreases in anxiety among study participants, whether or not they had a previously-present anxiety disorder. There are many studies suggesting meditation may have beneficial outcomes for those struggling with stress and anxiety.
12. Mindfulness Helps Regulate Mood Disorders
In the aforementioned study by Hofmann and his team, researchers found a decrease in depression and less symptoms of mood disturbances in study participants. Again, this held true for individuals with mood disorders and those without mood disorders.
13. Meditation Reduces Symptoms of PTSD
Research has found that meditation can significantly reduce symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), with one study finding a reduction in PTSD symptoms in veterans. In this study, veterans underwent a normal treatment routine for PTSD, while another group added in mindfulness meditation practices. Those who participated in the mindfulness program showed less symptoms of trauma after the study than those who completely the regular routine of treatment.
14. Meditation Improves Self-Esteem
There have been many studies investigating the relationship between meditation practice and things like self-esteem and body image. One of my favorite studies looking at the benefits of meditation is a 2005 study investigating self-esteem in women with breast cancer. The study looked at tai chi, a form of moving meditation. The author found that those who participated in this mindfulness practice showed more self-esteem than those who interacted with a social support group.
15. Mindfulness Practice Can Help Treat Addiction
Mindfulness is becoming increasingly popular in addiction treatment programs. Sarah Bowen, a researcher at the University of Washington, has found that mindfulness-based interventions increase outcomes in those participating in drug treatment programs. According to an interview with UC Berkeley, Bowen believes this is partly due to the pragmatism of mindfulness practice, or the fact that we can bring our meditations to life in daily living.
16. Creativity is Boosted
Colzato, et al. found in 2012 that open awareness, or mindfulness, practices increased creativity and divergent thinking in study participants. This increased the ability of individuals to be creative, and allows for greater problem solving skills and thinking outside of the proverbial box.
17. It Increases Self-Awareness
A 2006 study found that meditation improves self-reference and self-awareness. It is just one of many, but this one used EEG’s, ERP’s, and neuroimaging, which makes it especially interesting in our opinion. This study found that individuals who practiced mindfulness experienced increased activity and blood flow in their anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal areas, resulting in an increase in self-awareness.
18. Meditation Helps Reduce Anger
Letting go of anger can be tough, but recent research has found that meditations with the heart practices such as compassion and metta decreases the stress and immune response in difficult and unpleasant situations. This research suggests these practices can create a difference in how the brain and body respond to stimulus, thus reducing anger responses.
Cognitive Benefits of Meditation
Cognitive benefits of meditation include effects on our working memory, our focus, our ability to learn, and more. There are many congitive benefits, but here are a few of the more well-researched ones.
In 2013, Mrazek, et al. investigated the relationship between mindfulness and working memory. Participants took just a two week meditation course, and then took multiple tests to measure focus, working memory, and more. The researchers found that the individuals who participated in the mindfulness meditation course had a significant increase in working memory when compared with the control group.
20. It Increases Focus
The same study mentioned above also found an increase in focus. Specifically, the researchers measured the presence of thoughts not related to the task at hand during a test, finding that non-task-related thoughts were much lower in individuals who had undergone a two week mindfulness course. There have been many more studies to suggest the same, and this is one powerful benefit of meditation practice.
21. Mindfulness Helps You Work Better Under Stress
Katherine MacLean led a study with a team at the University of California, Davis that found meditation can help you work better under stress. Their study investigated a lot of different factors and had many interesting findings. One of these was that individuals were able to focus on boring tasks and tasks with deadlines. Those who engaged in twenty minutes of practice a day were able to work more efficiently, focus better, and work with less stress than the control group.
22. Meditation Improves Your Ability to Solve Problems
A 1982 study published in the journal Memory & Cognition found that meditation practice increased verbal problem solving. This study actually looked at Transcendental Meditation® (TM®), not Buddhist meditation. The study found the meditation to be effective in helping individuals develop verbal problem solving, or the ability to speak and question in a way that helped solve problems.
23. Decision-Making is Better
In individuals recovering from polysubstance abuse, a study found that individuals who underwent mindfulness-based therapies displayed better decision-making. This study found a significant increase in decision making and executive functions. This is likely a result of increased activity in the prefrontal cortex due to meditation practice.
24. Meditation Helps You Learn New Things
Multiple studies have found that mindfulness practice increases an individual’s ability to learn new information. This is due to increased activity in regions of the brain associated with memory, learning, problem-solving, and more.
25. Mindfulness Helps Visuospatial Processing
Fadel Zeidan, a researcher at the Wake Forest School of Medicine investigated mindfulness practice and its relationship with visuospatial learning. His team and he found that mindfulness practice significantly increased visuospatial memory and processing. This is what is responsible for our ability to visually remember things, recognize objects and events by sight, and process visual information.
Social Benefits of Meditation
In addition to the psychological, physical, and cognitive benefits of mindfulness, there are ways in which our practice can impact our social interactions. These benefits may show in our daily lives, and the way we interact with others in our lives.
26. Mindfulness Decreases Feelings of Loneliness
Loneliness is of course a social issue, but also leads to many physical and psychological issues as well. A 2012 study found that meditation practice, even when done alone, can decrease feelings of loneliness. This includes the feeling of loneliness that may arise whether or not we are surrounded by other people.
27. Compassion Practice Helps us Be More Compassionate
Elizabeth covered this study a while ago in her post for One Mind Dharma. Researchers had people practice compassion meditation, and found that those who practiced were more likely to actually act with compassion and generosity than the control group. This is a beautiful study, as it demonstrates the real-world benefit of a meditation practice.
28. Metta Reduces Social Isolation
I personally love studies on metta meditation, and this one was done with just a few minutes of practice a day. Hutcherson, et al. found that this loving-kindness practice can significantly help increase positive social emotions and decrease social isolation.
29. Loving-Kindness Helps Create Positive Relationships
In addition to decreasing negative social emotions, loving-kindness practice can help us create positive relationships. The research found that metta practice increases empathy and allows us to connect more deeply with others. With even a few minutes of practice, individuals showed marked increases in positive relationships with others.
Critiques of the Research
It would be irresponsible to talk about the research on and meditation and mindfulness without discussing a few critiques. There are many critiques out there, but here are a few we see. To be clear, we are not taking the position that all mindfulness-based research is wrong or inaccurate. Rather, we must note that there are shortcomings and problems with the research.
Null and Counter Findings
Although we just listed 29 ways in which meditation can be beneficial with cited studies, there are many studies that found null or counter findings. For example, we recently published a piece on our blog in which a study found that mindfulness had little or no benefit for teens. Another study found that mindfulness practice may increase the forming of false memories. More research suggests meditation may actually be triggering or activating for those who have experienced trauma or are in the midst of a mental health disorder.
There is a lot of research out there showing things other than mindfulness being beneficial. Some didn’t find any benefit to meditation practice, while others actually discovered potential harms to practice. These studies may give some insight into if mindfulness is effective across the board, and what populations may benefit most from meditation practice.
Varied Systematic Definitions
In my opinion, this is one of the greatest pitfalls of meditation research. Like many other research disciplines, there are loose definitions. The word “mindfulness” in a study may refer to a body scan or a concentrative meditation on the breath. The term “compassion” is often used to refer to metta meditation, not compassion. These differences make it hard to understand across the board what is meant by terms like mindfulness, mindfulness intervention, and meditation.
Mindfulness Research is New
Finally, there is the point that this is a relatively new field of research. In fact, mindfulness is relatively new to the West in general. With the spread of Buddhism and mindfulness across the world in recent centuries, it has become an increasingly popular practice. The studies and research have really just begun. Because it is in its youth, the research we do have is laying groundwork. Like other scientific disciplines, we don’t have sure answers, only working theories!
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