“More than 80% of the world-class performers I’ve interviewed have some form of a daily meditation or mindfulness practice…It is a ‘meta-skill’ that improves everything else.” -Tim Ferriss
I’ve known for years that I should be meditating, but it wasn’t until I interviewed the Cognitive Scientist Donald Hoffman, about the nature of our minds, that I felt insatiably compelled to begin a daily practice. I’m a researching type, so to compliment my new habit, I began looking into the scientific benefits of meditation. I didn’t realize the rabbit hole I was tumbling down.
There are over 6,000 studies on the benefits of meditation, and many of the popular memes about the benefits come from studies that don’t meet high-quality scientific standards. This article is going to be a comprehensive exploration into this mountain of research. I’m a Cognitive Psychologist by training, and I leaned heavily on the book Altered Traits, by the two titans in this field, Daniel Goleman PhD, and Richard Davidson PhD, in the creation of this article.
We’ll cover how science classifies meditation, the three categories of measurable benefits research finds, and the tiers or types of meditators the research reveals. There will be a quick-guide for those not interested in the actual studies but want to know the benefits of meditation, then I’ve written a section specifically for the skeptics (yall are important, thank you for questioning, it makes the research stronger), then we get into over 80 studies documenting the benefits of meditation, most of them the highest-quality studies to date.
Since the podcast with Don, doing this research, and solidifying my personal practice, I’m convinced that meditation is the most important practical habit for my life and career. If you’re interested in making this a daily habit, I have a guide to habit change you can get by clicking the button on the right. I offer one-on-one coaching for those interested as well.
Below is a clickable table of contents that can take you to whichever part of this massive article you’re interested in.
What is Meditation
This article is about the scientific benefits of meditation, and in order for the scientific method to study the benefits, meditation had to be precisely defined. The second definition of meditation that Webster offers is closely how science defines it. Swap out “spiritual awareness” for “psychological awareness” or “subjective awareness,” and you’ll be sharing the same reality tunnel as the scientist when you think of the word meditation.
Types of Meditation Studied
Focused Attention Meditation – A type of meditation where you choose an object, such as the sensation of the breath, to keep your awareness on. When the mind wanders off the breath, you non-judgmentally notice this wandering, and bring your awareness back to the chosen object.
Open-Monitoring Meditation – A type of meditation where you allow whatever arises in your mind to arise, and to witness it without judgement.
Metta (Compassion) Meditation – A type of meditation where you cultivate a feeling of “loving-compassion” for yourself and others.
Mantra (Transcendental) Meditation – A type of meditation where you choose a word or phrase to repeat in your mind.
There are entire lives devoted to explaining each of these types of meditation more thoroughly. I am introducing them now only to help you understand the scientific findings more clearly.
It is worth noting that many types of contemplative practices have not yet been studied. Due to the nature of neuroplasticity, the types of benefits you will see will depend on the type of meditation you are doing.
Types of Meditation Benefits
Cognitive Benefits – If you think of your mind as a computer, these are performance benefits. You can pay attention longer, ignore distractions better, reduce fatigue from switching between tasks, and begin to understand that you can choose which thoughts or emotions to engage with.
Physiological Benefits – These are benefits your general practitioner would be happy about. Improved blood pressure, increased longevity, improved resistance to stress, better sleep quality, and improved immune functioning are all physiological benefits meditators acquire.
Psychological Benefits – These are benefits your psychologist would be happy about. Decreased Depression and Anxiety symptoms, reduced chance of depressive episode relapse, greater subjective quality of life, reduced experience of chronic pain, and even decreased PTSD symptoms are all findings from the scientific literature on the benefits of meditation.
Types of Meditators
“In the scientific study of any skill that people practice, from dentistry to chess, when it comes to sorting out the duffers from the pros, lifetime hours of practice are gold.” -Richard Davidson PhD
It turns out that one of the most crucial metrics to look at in order to understand the benefits of meditation is lifetime hours spent meditating. Once this metric was realized and used, researchers began to see that the benefits of meditation begin to cluster around 3 groups.
Beginner (7 – 100 hours) – Most of us reading this will find ourselves in this category, and the science is encouraging. Even after only 7 hours of meditation, people begin to see significant changes in their cognition, physiology, and psychology.
Long-Term (1000 – 10,000 hours) – These are the types of meditators who have dedicated many years to a consistent daily practice. They tend to go on 3 day up to 3 month silent meditation retreats. These are people like Sam Harris, Richard Davidson, and others who live “in the world” but also dedicate their life to the practice of meditation.
Yogis (12,000 – 62,000 hours) – These tend to be people who are “professional” meditators. They meditate for a living. They are monks, lamas, and meditation teachers. They reveal the upper limits of what meditation can do to the human mind.
This section is for the people who trust me as a source and just want to know what science has found about the benefits of meditation. There are summaries for each group (Beginners, Long-Term, and Yogis) below the infographic.
Beginner Benefits (7 to 100 hours)
Beginners of meditation can expect to be able to focus on tasks longer and to feel like their mind is working more quickly. They may or may not notice it, but they will be improving their bodies ability to handle the physiological damage of chronic stress, and they will notice that they are just slightly less likely to react in their habitual ways. These beginner benefits are fragile, and require a daily practice to keep them present in daily life.
Long-Term Benefits (1,000 to 10,000 hours)
The scientifically supported benefits of meditation really start adding up for long-term meditators. All the benefits from the beginning stage deepen. They will notice that the nature of their mind is more apparent to them. Their attention and focus has increased. They recover from distractions more quickly, they can focus longer, and they are able to more finely discern between categories of phenomena. Physiologically, their average cortisol levels will be lower than beginners and non-meditators. Some who go on extended meditation retreats will reduce their breath rate, which correlates positively to increased longevity. Psychologically, they have weaker compulsive desires then beginners or non-meditators. They have an ability to regulate their emotions that non-meditators would find difficult to even imagine. And the part of their mind that is dedicated to the ego (the Default Mode Network) is quieter and less active, which correlates to a reduced risk of depression and anxiety.
Yogis (12,000 to 62,000 hours)
These kinds of people spend most of their waking lives meditating. If we met them, we would likely be struck by a presence that no scientific description could do justice to. Reports of these people are that they embody compassion and lightness. Cognitively, these yogis produce a brain-wave state known as gamma oscillation 25 times stronger than even long-term meditators. Gamma waves correlate when normal people have an “insight” or “ah-ha moment.” This type of brainwave is an indicator that many different parts of the brain are firing in union. It is a brain state most of us visit for literally a second or two every once in awhile. These yogi’s show it at baseline, and it shoots up when they begin meditating. Physiologically, these yogis, when they undergo extended periods of meditation, can lower their cortisol so low that researchers had to create a new scale to measure it. Psychologically, these yogis, when compared to a control group, have dramatically lower fear, reaction, and rumination of pain. Brain-wave scans have also showed that these yogis are able to slip into meditation without effort, where you or I would have to activate our prefrontal cortex almost the entire time we meditate in order to keep our focus on our breath.
There are still untold amounts of benefits researchers have yet to figure out how to measure, or even how to conceptualize. These findings are what science can currently claim to know about meditation when the highest methodological integrity is used.
I see the skeptic and the curious as close kin (my ego fancies himself both).
Most people only read headlines. A small percentage of them will read the article. A smaller percentage still will click on the sources to see if they are peer-reviewed articles. Then there are the truly insane minority who will read the article and evaluate the methodological strength of the study. This section is for that insane person.
These are the 7 factors to keep in mind when evaluating meditation studies.
1) Science doesn’t prove.
This is probably the most common misconception about science. Any honest scientist will admit that science does not prove anything, rather, experiments and data either support or fail to support theories. It is a glimmering red flag if you hear or read someone saying science proved something. The studies on mediation aren’t proving it’s benefits, but they are providing strong support for lasting cognitive, biological, and psychological benefits.
2) The publication game skews the data we see in journals.
There is a game scientists play. Their hierarchy is dependent on the amount of papers they publish in peer-reviewed journals. These journals are interested in discoveries, so scientists tend to not publish non-findings, and they rarely attempt to replicate a previous study to test its validity. This game has undermined the credibility of entire fields. It is worth keeping in mind when evaluating the meditation research.
3) There is “Experimenter Bias” is Meditation Research.
A brief journey into cognitive psychology will quickly show you that the human animal is full of biases. Given that scientists are humans, they share these biases. The experimenter bias is when the person creating a study and analyzing the data has a conscious or unconscious desire for the data to show a specific result. This can effect the way he or she analyzes the data. This is a significant problem in meditation research because many of the scientists who are studying this field are themselves meditators. So it is important to look for double-blind or triple-blind studies.
4) There is “Expectation Demand Bias” in Meditation Research.
There are two main ways researchers can gather data from subjects to see the effects of something like meditation. The first type are called “hard” measures. These are aspects of the individual they have no conscious control over influencing, like heart-rate, brain activity, or immune response. Then there are “soft” measures. These are normally reports the subject will fill out in a survey. These soft measures are not as accurate as hard measures, and these soft measures are used in a lot of meditation study. The expectation demand bias is when the subject will answer a questionnaire in a way that either they hope to be true, or that they think the researchers want. This normally happens subconsciously, but it skews results. When looking at the research on the benefits of meditation, hard measures are ideal.
Source: Psychological Assessment
5) Most of the subjects in these studies are WEIRD.
Most research done in this country is on undergraduate students in universities. This is not a random sample of the population. These students are predominantly Westernized, Educated, Industrialized, Rich (compared to the world average), and Democratic. This kind of sample effects the data we derive from these studies. The best studies on the benefits of meditation will sample people outside this WEIRD sample pool.
6) Most Meditation researchers don’t document the total amount of hours meditated.
Due to the nature of meditation, if meditation creates any benefits at all (it does), these benefits would deepen with increased duration of practice. So when researchers don’t document the amount of hours meditated per subject, their statistical averages are hopelessly skewed. The best research on the benefits of meditation document the amount of hours practiced.
7) Most studies simply do not meet the highest methodological standards.
John Hopkin’s University did an amazing meta-analysis of all the studies looking at the benefits of meditation, and “after reviewing 18,753 citations, (they) included 47 trials with 3515 participants.” That means that 99% (47 out of 18,753) of the citations studied did not meet high methodological standards. This was a wake up call in 2014 to scientists researching meditation that they need to improve the quality of their studies.
This is a living document. I encourage any skeptic who finds flaws in the ranking or methodology to let me know. I will give credit to any who help me find these flaws in this section.
As mentioned earlier, there are over 6,000 studies looking at the benefits of meditation. Most of them are not great quality studies, meaning, we can’t really draw conclusions from their results. However, there are quite a few well-designed studies that reveal the effects of a meditation practice.
Below I cover the best studies to date. Any study with a (GS) next to it, which stands for Gold-Standard, are studies that meet specific methodical design requirements that make them high quality studies. Any study without a (GS) next to it is a study I found interesting, but it does not meet these high standards.
1. Cognitive Benefits
(GS) Decreases “Habitualization”
This is huge. One of the main reasons we suffer is due to what scientists call Hedonic Adaptation. The human nervous system will adapt to whatever stimuli becomes constant and predictable. This study looked at this habituation at the neurological level. They had zen monks listen to a monotonous tone 20 times. The average non-meditator will show a spike in brain activity at the first sound, but by the 10th, no response to the sound will show in the brain imaging. However, in the 3 most advanced meditators (most life-time meditation) their brains responded just as strongly to the 20th tone as they did to the 1st. This has huge implications for what mindfulness can do to human’s innate hedonic adaptation.
The second source is a study replicating the previous.
(GS) Decreases “Reactivity” (aka, We’re Less Likely to Be Distracted by Emotional Over-Reactions)
When our nervous system detects either a threat or something surprising, we lose conscious control of our attention for a moment. Our nervous system wants us to attend to the anomaly. This was useful 100,000 years ago, but now we live in a culture where countless symbols are able to trigger this instinct. Our phone’s pings, a unknown sound in the dark, a news headline, these things demand our attention. But when meditators begin cultivating their awareness, they begin strengthen the circuitry in the prefrontal cortex that inhibits this emotional hijacking. The phone can ring, and we can notice it, but not lose our concentration. This is a superpower in today’s culture.
Source: “Meditation Training Is Associated with Altered Amygdala Reactivity to Emotional Stimuli” (Under Review, 2017)
(GS) Improves “Orienting”
There is a famous psychology example called “The Cocktail Effect.” You’re at a party listening to a conversation in a loud, crowded room. You seem to be only hearing the conversation in front of you and an ocean of nonsense noise around you. However, if someone on the other side of your room happens to make a sound that is close to the sound of your name, you’ll notice this and look towards the sound. This is evidence that our brain is subconsciously processing a lot more of our surroundings then we are conscious of. Meditation has been shown to improve this ability to cut through the noise and orient our attention towards what is important.
(GS) Improves Focus (Selective Attention)
A group at MIT used MEG (a magnetic EEG that’s really accurate) to see if an 8 week Mindfulness-Based Stress-Reduction course could improve selective attention (the ability to consciously choose what to focus your attention on while ignoring all that is not useful.) They found not only that the course did indeed improve this function, but the research also overturned an old belief in neuroscience, that one’s attentional ability is largely fixed. This kind of research introduces doubt into how our healthcare system currently attempts to fix attention deficit disorders.
The second source found the same improvements of selective attention in meditators who did an intensive 3 month meditation retreat.
(GS) Improved Sustained Attention (Vigilance)
Clifford Saron and Alan Wallace studied people who went on a 3 month meditation retreat where they were asked to pay attention to their breathing for 5 hours a day. Through using a battery of tests, they found that these meditators had a huge boost in their ability to sustain their attention without losing focus, and that these attention benefits lasted even after 5 months after the retreat ended.
Source: Psychological Science
(GS) Improved “Refractory Period”
We seem to have a finite amount of attention. There is a phenomenon called attentional blink, which is basically the observation that when we are quickly shown two pieces of information, we linger on the first one and miss the second one. Our attention “blinks.” In a study on people who underwent a 3 month open-monitoring program, researchers found that the practitioners significantly reduced this blinking, which allowed them to more accurately keep their attention on the flashing pieces of information. If you play any game that hinges on quickly acessing information and reacting to this, open-monitoring may improve your skills.
The third source is evidence that meditation can slow down the degeneration of our refractory period as we age, aka, meditator’s brains age better.
Source: NCBI (1), NCBI (2), Consciousness and Cognition
(GS) Improved “Cognitive Control”
Cognitive Control can be thought of as goal-directed focus. You consciously choose to focus on said objective, and you can sustain that focus, keeping the goal in mind, in the midst of distractions. This may be one of the most important cognitive skills in the modern age. A study published in Nature found that “just three ten-minute sessions of breath counting was enough to appreciably increase their attention skills on a battery of tests.”
(GS) Improves Working Memory
If you are a student, pay attention to this one. Your working memory is your best friend, and this study “gave volunteers a two-week course in mindfulness of breathing, as well as of daily activities like eating, for a total of six hours, plus ten-minute booster sessions at home daily.” They found that this “mindfulness improved concentration and lessened mind-wandering…also improved working memory.” This improvement in working memory lead to a more than 30% increased in average GRE scores!
Source: Psychological Science
(GS) Improves Meta-Awareness
Meta-Awareness is the part of your consciousness that can be aware of what your consciousness is do. It is the definition of “Meta.” This is the skill you work when you select an objection to focus on when you meditate, and you’ve noticed you’re mind has wandered. Psychologists at UC-Barbara found that this important cognitive skill improved in those who underwent a meditation course, while those in a control group who studied nutrition advice did not see any improvement.
(GS) Decrease in felt-sense of “Self”
This is a doozy. We all have a feeling of a self. Most people call this the ego. Our lives feel like a movie, and we feel like the main character. This feeling, however, is fleeting when you begin to look at it. You lose this sense of self whenever you watch a good movie, or get lost in sex, or hit flow in a sport, or sit long enough on a meditation retreat, or when you take a large enough dose of a psychedelic. This sense of self is useful but when it is overly-active, it correlates with depression. Meditation decreases the activity of this “Default Mode Network,” also known as the “Narrative Network.”
Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (1), Science, Proceedings of the national Academy of Sciences (2), Brains and Behavior, NeuroImage
Compassion meditation increases Willpower
A Stanford study randomly assigned 100 people to either a compassion cultivation training program, or a wait-list condition. But this time, they looked at the effects on mindfulness, emotional regulation, and willpower. They found that those who underwent the compassion training, improved in all these areas. It seems to be that when we develop a compassionate disposition towards the inherent suffering of life, we waste less cognitive resources lamenting our suffering. We accept it, compassionately hold it in awareness, and use our cognitive resources towards other actions.
Researchers wanted to know if mindfulness meditation effected attention, so they assigned participants to three groups, one group were people with no meditation experience who were going to be taught Mindfulness-based stress reduction meditation, the second group were experienced meditators who would go on a month long retreat, and the third was a control group. They found that both the newbies doing the training, and the retreaters scored better on attention tests than the control group. Mindfulness meditation indeeds improves your ability to notice phenomenon, orient to it, and process it.
Reduces Biased-Thinking (Sunk-Cost Bias)
This is huge, and a very interesting field of research. The human animal has evolved dozens of cognitive shortcuts that were adaptive at some point in our evolution but have been exposed by clever scientists. These shortcuts are called cognitive biases, and we have a lot of them. Mindfulness Meditation has been shown to reduce this biased thinking, specifically the sunk-cost bias.
Reduces Perception of Pain
We are all familiar with pain. It is a human universal. What’s interesting is, there is the sensation of pain, then there are all the cognitive and emotional reactions we have to the experience of pain. We each have our own stories that we wrap around our perception of pain. Mindfulness meditation helps us notice all the extra shit we activate when we feel pain, which, when we slow these extra stories about our pain down, we actually experience less pain. These researchers found, “after four-days of mindfulness meditation training, meditating in the presence of noxious stimulation significantly reduced pain-unpleasantness by 57% and pain-intensity ratings by 40% when compared to rest.”
Source: The Journal of Neuroscience
Corporate america’s religion is multitasking, and multi-tasking isn’t what our brains are suited for. This study looked at the effects of 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation on multitasking in Human Resource employees. While it didn’t improve the worker’s ability to multi-task, the mindfulness meditation did improve their memory of work they had done, and also allowed them to stay focused on a task longer without giving into the need to switch tasks.
Not only is this study evidence that mindfulness meditation can improve your cognition, what they found that is significant is that you’ll see noticeable effects in only four days. “Meditation training reduced fatigue, anxiety, and increased mindfulness. Moreover, brief mindfulness training significantly improved visuo-spatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning. Our findings suggest that 4 days of meditation training can enhance the ability to sustain attention; benefits that have previously been reported with long-term meditators.”
Source: Consciousness and Cognition
2. Physiological Benefits
(GS) Improves All The Things
This is a quote pulled from Sam Harris’s “Waking Up” (highly recommend), and it is his strongest evidence for the benefits of mindfulness meditation. “Meta-Analysis found that mindfulness improves immune function, blood pressure and cortisol levels; leads to reduced anxiety, depression, neuroticism, and emotional reactivity. It also led to greater behavioral regulation and has shown promise in the treatment of addiction and eating disorders.”
(GS) Improves Symptoms of People with Epilepsy, PMS, and Menopause
Four researchers at the University of Connecticut Medical school wanted to do a comprehensive review of the effects of meditation on illness. They reviewed all such studies they could find and determined 20 were done well enough to review. They found that Meditation (along with yoga, meditative prayer, and relaxation techniques) significantly improved the health of the people in the study, had no adverse side-effects (no pharmaceutical medicine can claim this), and that meditation specially helped people enduring epilepsy, PMS, and Menopause.
(GS) Reduced Age-Related Pain and Disability
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction has been found to reduce the pain elderly people experience in their joints, and also improved their mobility. This study found that the lowered levels of pain continued even after 6 months.
The second source is a Meta-Analysis looking at MBSR’s effects on chronic pain, and they found it to be a good alternative to purely medical treatment (and none of the side-effects).
(GS) Significant Improvements in Psychological Symptoms of Patients with Fibromyalgia
Fibromyalgia is a present day medical mystery. We don’t know what causes it, but it produces chronic pain, fatigue, stiffness, and insomnia in patients. However, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction showed “a significant improvement in psychological symptoms, such as how much stress fibromyalgia patients felt, and lessened many of their subjective symptoms.”
Source: Annals of Behavioral Medicine
(GS) Reduces Inflammation and Increased Healing Speed
People who underwent the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, when compared to an active control (HEP), found their skin was more resistant to inflammation, and their skin healed faster from an artificially induced cut. These results suggest, when we slow down the type of consciousness we live in that is chronically producing mild stress, we free up our metabolic resources to focus on physical healing.
Source: Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, Psychosomatic Medicine, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Psychoneuroimmunology
(GS) Meaningfully Reduces Blood Pressure
High-blood pressure is a serious problem in our country. While a good diet will dramatically improve your blood pressure, this meta-analysis looked at 9 medium to high quality studies that looked at the effect TM had on blood pressure. The researchers concluded that a regular practice of TM has clinically-meaningful positive effects on blood pressure.
(GS) Epigenetic suppression of inflammation
This may be one of the most significant implications of meditation research. Experienced meditators did a mindfulness meditation practice for 8 hours, and “After eight hours of mindfulness practice, the meditators showed a range of genetic and molecular differences, including altered levels of gene-regulating machinery and reduced levels of proinflammatory genes, which in turn correlated with faster physical recovery from a stressful situation.” What this means is, with meditation, we can literally influence the kinds of genes that are turned on or off. We are not determined by our genetics. Our actions can influence how they express themselves.
(GS) Reduces Pro-Inflammatory gene expression
This is an interesting study I wish I knew more about. Apparently, there is a specific pro-inflammatory gene that gets “turned on” in socially isolated people. This study looked at the effects of an 8-week MBSR program on these lonely adults, and found that, indeed, this gene’s expression was reduced. Something to keep in mind here, is that the MBSR program involves a group of people getting together for 90 minutes each week, which may be the reason we see this effect.
(GS) Increased Telomerase Activity (Increased Longevity)
There is biological evidence that meditation may allow you to live longer.
“Telomerase is the enzyme that slows the age-related shortening of telomeres; the more telomerase, the better for health and longevity. A meta-analysis of four randomized controlled studies involving a total of 190 meditators found practicing mindfulness was associated with increased telomerase activity.”
Third source found these benefits in women who had been doing loving-kindness meditation for four years.
Source: Psychoneuroendocrinology (1), Psychoneuroendocrinology (2), Brain, Behavior, and Immunity (3)
(GS) Increased Thickening of Specific Brain Structures
What was revolutionary 30 years ago is taken for granted today: your brain changes depending on how you use it. Meditation physically changes 5 important structures in your brain.
“Certain areas of the brain seem to enlarge in meditators. 1) The insula, which attunes us to our internal state and powers emotional self-awareness, by enhancing attention to such internal signals. 2) Somatomotor areas, the main cortical hubs for sensing touch and pain, perhaps another benefits of increased bodily awareness. 3) Parts of the prefrontal cortex that operate in paying attention and in meta-awareness, abilities cultivated in almost all forms of meditation. 4) Regions of the cingulate cortex instrumental in self-regulation, another skill practiced in meditation. 5) The orbitofrontal cortex, also part of the circuitry for self-regulation.”
(GS) Slows Age-Related Cortical Shrinkage
As we age, our brains begin to lose the race with entropy, and our cortex begins to shrink. If this gets to severe, age-related cognitive diseases can manifest. There is a long literature that shows exercise reduces this age-related shrinkage, and now, this same effect has been observed in meditators. This study found that long-term meditators, when compared to same-age controls, average a younger brain by 7.5 years.
Reduces Stress (and also improves life satisfaction)
A randomized clinical trial looked at the effect of what is called “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction,” on, you guessed it, stress. They found that those who underwent MBSR training not only significantly reduced stress, but also increase the length of positive emotions and improved reported life-satisfaction.
Source: Annals of Behavioral Medicine
Improved Immune Function
Researchers found that those who took 6 weeks of compassion meditation training, when compared to a control, showed a reduced response to injected cortisol which is a standard measure for immune function. That is to say, compassion meditation seems to improve immune function by reducing people’s response to stress.
Improves Resistance to Age-Related Cognitive and Physiological Decline
Researchers wanted to know whether age related decline could be reduced through specific mental techniques, so they studied elderly people who either tried Trancendental Meditation, Mindfulness Meditation, a relaxation technique, and then a control group. They found “groups, on paired associate learning; 2 measures of cognitive flexibility; mental health; systolic blood pressure; and ratings of behavioral flexibility, aging, and treatment efficacy. The MF group improved most, followed by TM, on perceived control and word fluency. After 3 years, survival rate was 100% for TM and 87.5% for MF in contrast to lower rates for other groups.”
Decreased Insomnia in Veterans
One of the most disrupting symptoms of PTSD is that it ruins our ability to sleep. When our sleep is bad, it begins to effect every system in our body that attempts to keep us healthy. Improving sleep is a critical way to begin healing ourselves and Transcendental meditation has been shown to reduce the symptoms of PTSD realted insomina by 42%.
Reduces Cortisol (A Stress Hormone)
This study looked at the effect of TM on cortisol. They studied a control, a group of beginner TM practitioners, then a group of advance (3-5 years) TM practitioners. They found no change in cortisol in the control, a small reduction in the beginner group, and a significant reduction in the advance group.
Source: Hormones and Behavior
Researchers measured the inflammation of a group of participants who undertook an 8 week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class with a control, and found that “mindfulness training, compared to a well-matched control condition, is a better buffer of the effects of psychological stress on neurogenic inflammation.”
Source: Brain, Behavior, and Immunity 1 and 2 and 3.
Change in Positive Affect and Improved Immune Function
A significant percentage of studies looking at the benefits of meditation use self-assessment reports to measure significance. This isn’t bad data, but it isn’t as reliable as physiological measures. These researchers wanted to gather and analyze more objective data, so they created a randomized, wait-list controlled study focusing on physical brain changes, and immune response stimulated by 8 weeks of Mindfulness-based stress reduction classes. They found increased activity in the part of the brain that correlates with positive affect, and also found the meditator’s immune system to heal from an injection of influenza vaccine faster than the control.
Source: Psychosomatic Medicine
3. Psychological Benefits
(GS) Reduces Anxiety in People with Anxiety Disorders
As a general rule of thumb, when well done, meta-analyses are some of the best data we can get in psychology. This study reviewed over 1000 studies that looked at the link between anxiety disorders and meditation, and they only chose the 36 studies with the strongest experimental structure (this is a technical point, but Randomized controlled trials are the best). The researchers found that “twenty-five studies reported statistically superior outcomes in the meditation group compared to control. No adverse effects were reported.” If you battle anxiety, meditation can help.
Source: ADAA and Depression and Anxiety
(GS) Decreases Mental, Psychosomatic, and Psychiatric Symptoms
A meta-analysis examined 64 high quality studies that looked at the effect of a mindfulness program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, and found conclusively that MBSR helped multiples types of people with multiple types of problems, ranging from people suffering from physical pain, mental disorders, and was even effective at helping people with severe personality disorders.
(GS) Decreases Anxiety, Depression, and Pain Symptoms
This is one of the highest quality meta-analyses looking at the psychological benefits of Meditation. Published in the prestigious American Medical Association’s journal JAMA, the meta-analysis found, after reviewing 47 studies that looked at the effects meditation has on a wide-range of factors, that the effects on Depression, Anxiety, and Pain were significant across these studies.
(GS) Improved Symptoms in Patients Diagnosed with Social-Anxiety Disorder
Philippe Goldin and James Gross studied the effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on people with social anxiety disorder. When compared to both a control using mental math, and another using aerobic exercise, only mindfulness was found to reduce activity in the amygdala, strengthened the attentional networks in the brain, and resulted in patients reporting less anxiety.
(GS) Reduced Amygdala Response to Disturbing (and Cute) Images
When compared to two different control groups, those who did an 8 week Mindful Attention Training course showed a significant reduced amygdala response to disturbing images. What this means is, those who practiced meditation did not overreact to the fact of the moment, if that fact was unpleasant. This is a key insight into what meditation can help us do. Reality is as it is, and we tend to judge the present, and grasp or resist the present depending on how we’ve judged it. By cultivating mindful attention, we reduce this child-like response and see the present as it is.
The second study found this effect after only doing meditation for 20 minutes a day for a week. These changes can happen quickly.
(GS) Reduced “Evaluative” response to Pain
For most of us, pain is a single phenomena we experience in the brain, yet, it is actually the combination of two different brain systems. One system is detecting the raw characteristics of the pain – hot, throbbing, stinging, etc. The other system is evaluating the sensation, it’s creating an ego-centered story about the sensations. For most of us, this is a strong negative emotion we create in response to the sensation. We don’t want to feel the pain, we think of all the ways this pain could mean more pain (illness, injury, etc). Experienced meditators show a greater resilience to pain, and also a dramatically lower “evaluative” response to pain. They feel the pain, but they don’t reactivity create emotional suffering around the sensation. This is a hard lesson for us to learn, but it’s critically important.
(GS) Enhanced “Response Inhibition”
This is one of the best designed studies in meditation research. Cliff Saron created a battery of tests to give people before and after a 3 month meditation retreat. He found that after the retreat, people’s ability to stop their mind from unconsciously reacting to a stimulus was improved, which is essentially what we are trying to do in response to our emotions. We have unconscious habitual reactions to each emotion we’ve experienced before, and if we want to undo some of our destructive habits, becoming aware of our reactions is the path.
“This simple skill led to a range of improvements on self-reports, from less anxiety to an overall sense of well-being, including emotion regulation as gauged by reports of recovering more quickly from upsets and more freedom from impulses.” -Altered Traits
Source: Shamatha Project,Emotion
(GS) Reduces Emotional Reactivity
Expert meditators, those who had meditated more than 19,000 hours, were exposed to “emotional sounds” while being observed by fMRIs. When compared to a control, the part of the brain that shouts “OH SHIT” then triggers your stress response, was much less reactive in the meditators than the control group. What that means for you is, with a meditation practice, the small chronic stimuli that pings your stress-response all day will get a little quieter, which means better focus, better sleep, and better recovery.
(GS) Loving-Kindness Meditation Transformed Negative Empathy to Positive Empathy
This is a weird one. Non-Metta Meditators will generate negative emotions when they see another human in pain. However, if you teach them metta meditation, in as little as a single six hour training course, people changed the part of their brains that activated in the face of suffering. Instead of feeling the pain of the other, they turned on the part of their brain that is activated between parent and child. When this circuitry is triggered, we generate love for the person we see suffering. And this actually creates positive emotions (in the form of compassionate love) in the participant witnessing the suffering.
Source: Cerebral Cortex
(GS) Reduces Severity of Depression and Chance of Relapse
Depression is a kind of mental place, that once your nervous system has learned how to get there, it make’s the trip back their easier. People who deal with depression know this, and fear the relapse. Mindfulness-based Cognitive therapy has been shown to reduce the likelihood that one of these relapses will occur. It seems to be that practicing mindfulness can help the individual notice the first few steps towards the relapse and allows them to make changes in their external or internal lives that help prevent the relapse.
The third study built on the first two but increased the number of participants and added an active control, which makes the results much more robust.
The fifth source is a meta-analysis of 9 Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy studies and found that the effects on depression and relapse held across the board.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy may be the most effective resource for people with severe drug-resistant Depression.
Source: Behavioral Research Therapy (1), Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (2), Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (3), Psychiatry Research (4), JAMA Psychiatry (5)
(GS) Decreased symptoms of Trauma, Anxiety, and Depression, While Improving Sleep and Subjective Stress Level in Prisoners
The Maharishi International University went to prisons and taught the inmates how to do transcendental meditation. After four months, they found the prisoner’s showed fewer symptoms of trauma, anxiety, and depression, while improving sleep and subjective stress levels. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world. It seems to would be incredibly humane if we could get meditation to our prisoners.
Source: The Permanente Journal
(GS) Reduces Chance of Teenage Onset of Depression
“The angst-filled teen years can see the first onset of depressive symptoms. In 2015, 12.5 percent of the US population aged 12 to 17 had at least one major depressive episode the previous year. This translates to about 3 million teens. While some of the more obvious signs of depression include negative thinking, severe self-criticism, and the like, sometimes the signs take subtle forms, like trouble sleeping or thinking or shortness of breath. A mindfulness program designed for teens reduced overt depression and such subtle signs, even six months after it ended.”
(GS) Improved PTSD symptoms in Veterans
In any given year, between 11-20 percent of the veterans in our country experience PTSD symptoms. The Seattle VA hospital put 42 vets with PTSD through a 12 week “metta” (Loving-Kindness) course and found that their symptoms of PTSD improved, as well as the intensity of their depression.
Source: Journal of Traumatic Stress
Loving-Kindness Meditation Reduced Self-Criticism
Westerns have weird tendency to hate themselves. We’re always comparing ourselves to others and internally criticizing what we think we are. The frequency of self-critical thoughts is a good predictor for depression. Researchers find that when patients practice metta meditation (Loving-Kindness), they “both lessen those harsh thoughts and increased their self-compassion.”
Compassion Meditation improved self-compassion and reduced fear of other-compassion
This study is special because it supports a couple different significant ideas. Stanford researchers randomly assigned 100 healthy adults into a compassion training group, and a wait-list condition. They found not only that compassion meditation indeed improves people’s ability to have compassion for themselves, others, and reduces fear of others having compassion for them (yes, this is a real thing), but this study was also a proof-of-concept that trait compassion can be improved, which introduces many avenues of research.
Compassion Meditation increases altruistic behaviors
This study found that through compassion cultivation training, people who received said training, were more likely to give funds to someone they saw as suffering, outside of control settings. This means, compassion meditation increases the likelihood you’ll help someone in need.
Loving Kindness meditation improved happiness
There is a theory in positive psychology that views “positive emotions” as evolutionarily adaptive because they help people build “resources,” like life purpose, friendships, meaning, and social capital. This study sought to explore this theory. They randomly assigned 139 people to either a control group or one that practiced loving-kindness meditation. They found that the meditation group began building this emotional resource, which directly transferred as increased happiness on self-report scales. When you practice loving-kindness, you become happier, because you begin seeing the meaning in life, you treat your friends better, and you feel grateful.
Increases social connectedness
Social connection is one of human’s fundamental needs. These researchers, concerned with the growing disconnection we feel in modern times, were curious if feelings of social connection could be improved with meditation. They not only found that it could, but that significant change in social relatedness could be achieved with only a few minutes of compassion meditation. Increased feelings of social connection is associated with a plethora of physical and mental benefits. This feeling is on tap, and we can taste it with meditation.
Decreases Rumination in Depressed Patients
One of the hallmarks of depression is a kind of thinking called rumination. it is the kind of thinking that dwells on a problem endlessly without seeking to solve it or act upon it. This type of thinking is a major correlate to the severity of one’s depression, and this study found that those who undertook an 8 week MBST program significantly reduced their tendency for rumination.
Source: Cognitive Therapy and Research
Reduces Anxiety (even three years after treatment)
This is a significant study. They found 22 medical patients who were diagnosed as having an anxiety disorder. The researchers asked them to undertake an 8 week MBSR program, and not only did they improve in subjective and objective measures for their anxiety, these effects were still statistically significant at a 3 year follow up. This kind of longitudinal significance is very rare.
Source: General Hospital Psychiatry
Reduces Stress and Improved Mood in Cancer Patients
A randomized, wait-list controlled study found that cancer patients who underwent a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program for 7 weeks “patients in the treatment group had significantly lower scores on Total Mood Disturbance and subscales of Depression, Anxiety, Anger, and Confusion and more Vigor than control subjects. The treatment group also had fewer overall Symptoms of Stress; fewer Cardiopulmonary and Gastrointestinal symptoms; less Emotional Irritability, Depression, and Cognitive Disorganization; and fewer Habitual Patterns of stress. Overall reduction in Total Mood Disturbance was 65%, with a 31% reduction in Symptoms of Stress.”
Source: Psychosomatic Medicine
Evolution has molded a human nature. This nature seems to produce a specific type of suffering in the type of culture we have. Meditation, in skill that asks you to cultivate a non-judgemental focus, seems to relieve a great deal of this stress between our nature and our culture.
With meditation, after only a couple weeks of consistent practice, you will experience a multitude of benefits. Your attention will improve in a myriad of ways, your biologically will literally improve due to less chronic stress, and you will develop practice psychological tools to dance with depression and anxiety in more effective ways.
We live in a time where true power is cultivating the ability to ignore 99% of the information screaming for your attention. Meditation helps us learn this skill.
The evidence is in, Meditation can transform your cognition, biology, and psychology.
Please feel free to share this or cite this page whenever you need to explain to someone how meditation can change their lives.
PS. Most of my writing is dedicated to habit change. If you want to make meditation a habit, check out my Best Articles section, and if you’d like to work with me personally to make meditation a habit, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
For Reports on Current Meditation Research
Center For Healthy Minds (Richard Davidson’s Lab)
Mind and Life Institute
National Center for Contemplative and Integrative Health
Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, Stanford
Mindfulness in Plain English
Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening
Wherever You Go, There You Are
The Miracle of Mindfulness