Meditation Grows in Popularity as Scientists Confirm Health Benefits

By Lucy Crawford | December 7, 2021
Born and raised in China, Lucy Crawford has been living in Canada for over 20 years. She has great sympathy for Chinese and human suffering in general. With a Master's degree in Education and having worked on various professions, she now translates and writes about stories in ancient and modern China. She lives in Calgary with her husband and four children.
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Meditation has long been used in spiritual practices to calm the mind and promote wisdom. Scientists are now studying the physical benefits as well, while meditation grows in popularity. (Image: Kampus Production via Pexels)

In the Nov. 16, 2001 issue of Proceedings of the American Academy of Sciences, scientists published a study concluding that meditation can enhance brain activity, significantly affecting the areas of the brain responsible for regulating emotions and happiness, allowing one to be more responsive. A good way to regulate the body both physically and mentally, meditation grows in popularity as this subject is studied by both Chinese and Western medical communities to improve health.

Meditation is widely seen in spiritual or religious practices like yoga, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. It is also used in some schools of traditional Chinese martial arts to cultivate internal energy, nourish the mind, and strengthen willpower. The practice involves sitting quietly and still, as it is understood that “Long periods of quiet brings one into a state of concentration; long periods of activity brings fatigue.” 

To meditate, one can sit naturally, crossed-legged, or in half or full lotus position. Lotus-position, with the feet resting on the thighs, might require some effort; but nearly anyone can do it, given time and perseverance. It not only nurtures the body and prolongs life, but also opens the mind and increases wisdom.

Meditation can enhance brain activity

The scientists studied a group of eight Buddhists, aged 34-64, who had been meditating for more than eight hours a day for the past 15-40 years, alongside a group of 10 healthy college students, aged 20-22, who had never tried meditation, but were willing to learn. The brain activity of the two groups of volunteers before and after meditation periods was measured and compared. 

By monitoring electrical activity on the scalp, the scientists found that the alpha and gamma wave activity was significantly higher in the group of long-term meditators, both during and before meditation; with the gamma wave oscillations being particularly strong. Gamma waves in the human brain are caused by activity in the frontal and parietal joint cortical areas of the brain, which are responsible for human emotions and pleasure-related areas.

In two of the older monks, extremely strong gamma wave activity was detected, and the results showed that the fluctuations in brain activity were caused solely by the length of time spent in meditation and were not related to individual differences.

The recorded results suggest that meditation enhances brain activity and significantly affects the areas of the brain that are responsible for regulating emotions and happiness, with both short-term and lasting effects. The findings were first published in a scientific journal after being tested by the Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior of the Waisman Center of the Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin. 

Sitting in the double lotus position has many health benefits, for both the mind and body. (Image: Elina Fairytale via Pexels)

Meditation historically used to improve health in China

During the Song and Ming dynasties (960-1644) in China, Confucianism placed great emphasis on meditation. Chinese people from all walks of life used to integrate meditation into their daily life. 

Huangdi Neijing (黃帝內經) or Esoteric Scripture of the Yellow Emperor, is an ancient Chinese medical text that has been treated as the fundamental doctrinal source for Chinese medicine for more than two millennia. It states: “Stay calm and empty, Qi will flow smoothly; when the spirit lives within, how can illness come?” This suggests that in a state of tranquility and emptiness, one’s essence and spirit, “Qi,” is firmly guarded within the body. In such a state, disease cannot penetrate.  

Meditation grows in popularity in the West

Suggestive psychotherapy in the medical community currently uses meditation to treat patients, having them focus their attention to achieve unity of mind and spirit.

In recent years, scientific theories on meditation have been studied in China and in the West. Time magazine recently reported that 10 million American adults are now learning to meditate, and meditation rooms are popping up in public places. The Spring 2002 issue of the Harvard Law Quarterly discussed the creation of a meditation program at West Point. 

As the winning coach with 11 NBA titles under his belt, Phil Jackson is considered one of the best basketball coaches the game has seen. As part of his legendary coaching, Jackson had his team practice mindfulness using meditation. Celebrities like Richard Gere and Al Gore are also among those who enjoy meditation.

In the past twenty-five years, more than 2,000 Mind/Body Medicine-related research articles have been published in leading medical journals, opening up another research direction for the medical profession.