How Meditation Can Slow the Ageing Process


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Research has shown that our brain changes if we practise meditation. These changes trigger a more positive frame of mind, and may even slow the ageing process.In his book Destructive Emotions, Daniel Goleman describes a very interesting collaboration between Professor Richard Davidson, a leading brain science, and an experienced Tibetan Buddhist meditator who used the pseudonym ‘Lama Oeser’. The Lama was asked to practise certain kinds of meditation, such as one-pointedness of mind and a meditation on compassion. During each of these meditation exercises, researchers looked to see whether there were any changes in the fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging).

I’m not a scientist, but this is what I understand about fMRIs: The images can show up activity in particular areas of the brain. Daniel Goleman says:

The EEG analysis bore particularly rich fruit in the comparison between Oeser at rest, and while meditating on compassion.

The results showed an increase in neural activity in an area that Davidson’s previous research had pinpointed as home for positive emotions, such as feelings of happiness, enthusiasm, joy, high energy and alertness.Goleman continues:

The very act of concern for others’ well-being creates a greater state of well-being within oneself

The finding lends scientific support to an observation often made by the Dalai Lama: that the person doing a meditation on compassion for all beings is the immediate beneficiary.

The research that Davidson did with Lama Oeser and others has shown that meditation can in fact change the structure of the brain.Reseach at the Harvard Medical school has also yielded some interesting results. Results show some unexpected changes in brain structure through meditation. Sara Lazar, psychologist and leader of the study says:

Our data suggest that meditation practice can promote cortical plasticity in adults in areas important for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being.

In ‘plain speak’ this means that in some areas of the brain the lining gets thicker proportional to the length of time that a person has practised meditation. These changes indicate that a meditator learns to process emotions and thoughts in a way that makes them feel happier.

There are indications that meditating may slow the ageing process.

Sarah Lazar says:

Our data suggest that one small bit of brain appears to have a slower rate of cortical thinning, so meditation may help slow some aspects of cognitive ageing.

That’s good news for all ageing meditators!I recently came across an interesting interview with Davidson about current brain research. Daniel Redwood asked him what led to his strong interest in brain research. Davidson replied:

My strong interest in brain research really came from my interest in the mind and its potential. I had the intuition and conviction from very early on that much of the world’s problems were caused by limitations in our mental functioning, that those limitations can be overcome with the appropriate intervention at the level of the mind.

Davidson goes on to say:

Modern knowledge in neuroscience underscores the idea of neuroplasticity, which means that the brain is an organ that changes in response to experience and in response to training. Essentially everything that we do, the totality of our experience and our behaviour, is constantly shaping our brains.

So, can meditation really make us happier? Davidson says:

Rather than thinking about qualities like happiness as a trait, we should think about them as a skill, not unlike a motor skill, like bicycle riding or skiing.

I am grateful for this thought! If it is a skill, we can practise the art of happiness and become skilled at it. And in practising this wonderful skill, we can brighten the lives of others. What do you think about this?

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©Mary Jaksch 2008

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  1. sterling says:

    The science of meditation is such a fascinating subject. I didn’t realize that mediation could actually change the physical structure of the brain!

    I love the idea of happiness as a skill. What a great message to wrap up the post with.

  2. Mary Jaksch says:

    @Sterling
    Yes, I agree – to see happiness as a skill makes all the difference to how we experience our life! I think sadness is also a skill. Sounds strange, I know. But my sense is that there is also a time for grief and sadness. To be skillful in sadness might mean to allow ourselves to feel it, but not to indulge in it either. What do you think?

  3. Mary, this is a beautiful article. I think the key to happiness is caring for ourselves as well as others and finding a balance between them.

    What struck me most from this article was this quote: “the person doing a meditation on compassion for all beings is the immediate beneficiary.”

    The simplest truths are the most beautiful. =)

    Jonathan

  4. Mary Jaksch says:

    @Jonathan
    Thank you for your encouraging comment, Jonathan. It’s not easy to find that balance between caring for ourself and others, is it? I think there is one simple warning sign that we have moved too much towards caring for others and are not extending enough care for ourself: resentment. I think resentment is a useful marker as it warns us that we are not holding necessary boundaries.

  5. sterling says:

    @Mary I haven’t thought of it before, but sadness as a skill does make sense. Especially in Western culture where we men tend to avoid certain emotions that might be considered “unmanly”. Thank you for mentioning it.

  6. Tom Stine says:

    Cool article. Anyone who has meditated for a while pretty much knows from experience that one is happier, more relaxed, mellower all the way around from meditation. I am always gratified to see science drawing the same conclusions.

    I look forward to more posts, Mary. :-)

  7. I agree that resentment is definitely a warning sign. When we’ve really mastered interdependence (caring for yourself as well as others) we’ll be able to see where resentment could form before it happens.

    Jonathan

    http://jonathanmead.com – Authenticity, Clarity, Balance

  8. lewis says:

    there is a really interesting conversation between daniel goleman and richard davidson that was just released on http://www.morethansound.net called training the brain. they have free samples on the website you can listen to, bests, lewis

  9. zenator says:

    amazing. thanks for passing along the profound wisdom

  10. Thanks for the informative post.. and thanks for adding our comment to the blog. I searched for a while to find the right answer to my questions!

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