“It feels good. Kinda like when you have to shut your computer down, just sometimes when it goes crazy, you just shut it down and when you turn it on, it’s okay again. That’s what meditation is to me.” – Ellen DeGeneres

In a hectic digital world, Ms. DeGeneres is not alone in using meditation to recharge herself. An estimated 18 million Americans meditate, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, to calm their busy minds and reduce stress. Studies on groups ranging from school-age kids to senior citizens have shown that regular meditation practice can boost memory and focus, lower blood pressure, relieve anxiety, insomnia and symptoms of menopause, improve homework and attention issues for kids with ADHD, and even build new brain tissue.  

What is Meditation?
“Meditation is an introspective practice that helps us get to know our mind in all its various states,” explains Sarah McLaughlin, a licensed massage therapist who also hosts meditation groups at the Heartwood Center in Evanston.  Meditation helps to “cultivate awareness and presence for our own well-being,” she says, “as well as for all those around us.”

There are various meditation techniques, many associated with Eastern religious and spiritual practices such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Chanting and contemplative prayer in Judaism, Islam and Christianity are also considered to be forms of meditation. Meditators often concentrate on a focal point: the sensation of breathing in and out, a mantra (a word, sound or phrase that is repeated internally or out loud), a visual point such as a candle flame, a prayer.

“Find something to focus your mind on,” advises Corinne Peterson, who teaches yoga nidra meditation in Evanston and Ravenswood, “and when the mind wanders, just guide it back to that focus, keep bringing it back.” It is the mind’s job to seek, she says, and bringing it back to a focal point is the essence of meditation.  

Meditation and other complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies such as yoga, acupuncture, herbal medicines and biofeedback are gaining credibility as viable additions to mainstream medical treatment. Meditation classes appear often in schools and corporate settings.  As meditation’s popularity has grown, scientists are designing research studies to investigate whether and how it affects the human brain and body.

Meditate for a Bigger Brain
In 2010, a Harvard research team took magnetic resonance (MR) scans of study participants’ brains, then sent half the participants to an eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.  Participants were trained in mindfulness, defined as “awareness of present-moment experiences with a compassionate, non-judgmental stance.” They learned mindful yoga and sitting meditation, and practiced mindfulness during daily activities such as eating, walking, washing the dishes, bathing. After the course, both MBSR and participants and the control group (who did no meditation or mindfulness activities) underwent a second MR scan.  

Scans of the meditators’ brains showed increased gray matter – a “thickening” of brain tissue in four regions: the posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind-wandering and self-awareness; the left hippo-campus, which assists with learning, memory and emotional regulation; the temporo parietal junction – associated with empathy and compassion; and an area of the brain stem called the pons, where a number of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.  

“Grey matter is where thinking and cognitive activity actually happens,” explains Sara Lazar, Ph.D., the study’s lead researcher. According to the study, the increased gray matter seen in the MBSR participants’ brains suggest that mindfulness meditation could effectively “grow” the brain and improve mental functioning.

A Boost to Teenage Memory
Another study found that working memory capacity (WMC) improved in teenagers after four weeks of mindfulness meditation practice. WMC, according to the study, is involved with reasoning ability, mathematical problem-solving, language and reading comprehension, and other aspects of learning. Three groups of students at a southern California junior high school were assigned to learn mindfulness meditation or hatha yoga, or to a control group that attended regular gym class. The meditation and yoga groups each met twice weekly, and practiced meditation or yoga daily at home. The meditation group learned breathing techniques and new kinds of mindfulness meditation each week. After four weeks, WMC was measured by having all three groups perform memory tasks while solving math equations. WMC in the mindfulness meditation group improved by 24%, while the yoga group improved by 4% and the control group by 1%. The results, according to the study, “are consistent with the notion that the practice of meditation – which requires sustained attention while simultaneously redirecting attention back to the current experience – is closely related to the function of working memory.”  

Just Say OM
Starting a meditation practice requires few tools:  a chair or a cushion for sitting on the floor, something to focus on (with eyes opened or closed), and a little time – just 5-10 minutes for beginners may suffice, says Sarah McLaughlin. There are numerous books, CDs, and smartphone and tablet apps to help with meditation, or consider finding a teacher to help further explore a particular technique or tradition.  Most importantly, advises Ms. McLaughlin, don’t stress out about being a good meditator. There is no doing it right or wrong.  

“Nobody meditates without having to bring their attention back to the present,” she says. “The very moment when you realize that you’ve actually lost your focus and you’re someplace else, that’s the moment when you’re meditating. When you’re coming back to your breath or your focal point – that’s what it’s about.”

Meg Evans has written science stories for the Evanston RoundTable since 2015, covering topics ranging from local crayfish, coyotes and cicadas to gravitational waves, medical cannabis, invasive garden...