Ask LH: Is Meditation Really All That Beneficial?

Dear Lifehacker, I've seen you guys post a few things about the benefits of meditation, and I only have one question: really? I'm pretty sceptical. Is there some actual science behind meditation benefits, or is this just one of those trends? Sincerely, Meditation Myths

Picture: Diego Cervo/Shutterstock, dedMazay/Shutterstock

Dear MM,

The meditation you've been hearing about isn't quite as stereotypical as you're probably thinking. And there is indeed science behind it: meditation has been a hot topic for all sorts of studies recently, and the supposed benefits range from jump-starting your productivity to improving your memory. Let's define what meditation actually is, what the benefits are, and how you can implement it into your daily schedule.

What Meditation Really Is

If you see the word meditation and immediately conjure up religious images or deadbeats wasting time at work, you're not alone. However, that's not exactly what we're talking about here. Mindful meditation, despite it's awkward name, is really just about training your brain to concentrate and focus better. As professor David Levy describes it over at USA Today, meditation is just another exercise:

Meditation is a lot like doing reps at a gym. It strengthens your attention muscle.

That's it. You don't need to buy yoga pants, burn incense, or even sit a particular way. The purpose of meditation is to train your brain just like you do the rest of your muscles. In this case, that means concentrating and focusing on one thing in your brain for a little while. As the New York Times points out in this article, it's about being mindful of what you're doing:

Though the concept originates in ancient Buddhist, Hindu and Chinese traditions, when it comes to experimental psychology, mindfulness is less about spirituality and more about concentration: the ability to quiet your mind, focus your attention on the present, and dismiss any distractions that come your way.

So if you're struggling with concentration and focus, it's thought that meditation is one simple way to train yourself to get better at it. All it really takes is the ability to intentionally not think about anything for a little while. Picture: Chris Tweddle

The Benefits of Meditation

It's long been thought that meditation plays some role in concentration and focus, but only recently have we started to see studies that actually reflect the common wisdom.

For example, one study from the University of Washington showed that meditation can increase productivity and help you focus. Another study published in Brain Research Bulletin suggests meditation can decrease stress. Yet another study by the University of Massachussetts Medical School has shown meditation can boost your overall brain power in a number of ways. Simply put, while researchers are still gathering evidence about the effects of meditation, it looks like even short stints of meditation have a positive effect on the brain's ability to concentrate. That in turn makes it easier to focus, retain memories and be more productive.

On a more circumstantial level, meditation can also help you avoid information overload. Meditation is also helpful when you want to improve your powers of observation, or change habits and cravings. Picture: Big Mind Zen Center/Flickr

How to Meditate

We've put together a guide to meditation before, and it's just as simple as it sounds. There really aren't any special tricks, magic incantations or weird brain hacks. It's just about sitting quietly and concentrating for a while. The The Harvard Business Review wrote about a meditation system we can all use:

Sit with your back straight enough that your breathing is comfortable -- on a chair or a cushion on the floor -- and set a timer for however many minutes you want to meditate. Once you start the timer, close your eyes, relax, and don't move except to breathe, until the timer goes off. Focus on your breath going in and out. Every time you have a thought or an urge, notice it and bring yourself back to your breath.

While a lot of the studies above dig into longer meditation periods, you don't need to dedicate that large of a chunk of time. two minutes a day is beneficial, and you can even use apps to help you calm down for those short periods of time no matter where you are.

So while it might seem strange to you, take a few minutes everyday to just relax, clear your mind and concentrate on your breathing. It's simple, doesn't take up that much of your day, and has been shown to have substantial benefits in all kinds of ways. If nothing else, it at least gets you away from your desk (and work) for a couple minutes. Picture: Richard Masoner/Cyclelicious/Flickr

Cheers Lifehacker

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Comments

    I was just thinking about this yesterday when LH posted that meditation topic.

    I mean the science sounds shady at best. Sample size of 16? How how can you put the benefits down to meditation? What if it's just the act of getting the participants to relax and not do anything for the 30 minutes - rather than the act of focusing - that's the reason for the changes?

      That first study linked should answer some of your questions - larger sample size plus the people that did simple body relaxation training didn't display the same improvements as those that did the meditation. If you spend a bit of time reading around there is quite a bit of scientific info to back up the benefit claims, particularly when they start measuring brainwave activity.

      From personal experience, meditation has been immensely helpful. I used to be an insomniac with an anxiety disorder, now using meditation I can slow my own heart rate and put myself to sleep within minutes. That's all the proof I need :)

      The sample size numbers in the millions and the practice goes back thousands of years. All medical disciplines, eastern and western, agree that it is beneficial. What is only just emerging now is a rudimentary understanding of the biological benefits.

      Simple relaxation and meditation are very different indeed. There are many forms of meditation, many ways to meditate, and many purposes. This article only touches on mindfulness meditation, and highlights concentration as the main benefit, but in fact concentration is only a means to an end, not an end in itself (although useful).

      Apart from the spiritual benefits (depending on your beliefs), the psychological, emotional and physical benefits of meditation are numerous. However, 2 minutes a day really isn't going to do much for you except perhaps help reduce your stress levels a bit. I'd recommend at least 20 minutes, more if you can. Also, do not expect immediate results, and don't beat yourself up if you think you are failing or getting it wrong. Once you accept that it takes time to settle down, steady your breathing, calm your thoughts and stop focussing on your thoughts, body and environment around you, and learn to bring your focus back to your breath (or whatever point you choose - it could be a word) it will then start to make sense.

      Um, it's adding to the thousands of studies like it with larger sample sizes.
      Geez you think no ones studied it before?

      You might want to stick to stuff you understand, or go study neurology /psychology /psychoneuroimmunology /physiology enough that you can make an informed judgment on 'how' can it help.

      If you can't be bothered - shut up and try it already

    Mindfulness "meditation" is simply paying attention to what you are experiencing in each moment. Focussing on the breath is the first step for most people, because the breath is always there and changes little. Ultimately the aim is to pay attention to all sensations, including the thoughts in your head, though the trick there is to acknowledge thoughts without getting into a dialogue with yourself. A great time to practice is when driving. We should all be paying complete attention to what we are doing then, but how many of us really do? Apart from the safety benefits, it can make driving a pleasant and relaxing experience (yes, even in heavy traffic).
    As to the "spirituality", that kind of follows naturally. No need to get spooky about it. It's one reason why a nexus is often drawn between martial arts and spirituality. Martial arts also requires you to be totally focussed on the present (if you don't want to cop a kick in the head).
    In a way, it has already between accepted by modern science. Mindfulness and a number of other Hindu/Buddhist techniques have been repackaged as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, which is the current darling of the psychiatric world.

      I think it's called DBT or Dialectical Behavioural Therapy.

        Thanks for that. I wasn't aware of DBT. I gather it is a formal integration of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Mindfulness Meditation.

    Maybe Meditation Myths could try it for him/herself if really interested in finding out, rather than just posturing as a cool sceptic?

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