In February this year, the New York Times reported on the results of a study published in Biological Psychiatry which brings scientific thoroughness to meditation, and for the first time shows that, unlike a placebo, meditation can change the brains of ordinary individuals and potentially improve their health.
The study recruited 35 unemployed men and women who were seeking work and experiencing reasonable amounts of stress. Blood was drawn and brain scans taken from each of the subjects. Half the participants were then taught formal mindfulness meditation at a residential retreat centre, the remainder completed a type of fake mindfulness meditation that was focussed on relaxation and distracting oneself from worries and stress.
At the end of the retreat, all participants reported feeling refreshed and better able to deal with the stress of unemployment and looking for a job or work. However (and this is the significant finding), follow-up brain scans showed differences in only those participants who underwent meditation. The researchers noted greater activity or communication among portions of their brains that process stress related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm.
Four months later, those who were taught to meditate, showed much lower levels in their blood of a marker of unhealthy inflammation than the relaxation group, even though few were still meditating.
The researchers believe that the changes in the brain contributed to the subsequent reduction in inflammation, although how exactly remains unclear.