Meditation: Pushups for Your Brain – The Evidence

March 02, 2007

Meditation:  Pushups for Your Brain – The Evidence 

 Competency # 21 Meditate                    Reference“How to Get Smarter One Breath at a Time” by L. T. Cullen; Time Magazine Jan. 10, 2006

 Deeply embedded in all of our sacred traditions is the concept of meditation.  In the modern world, we have secularized it and called it the “relaxation response”.  My eye can’t help but catch the multiple references in the last few months as to what meditation does for our brains.  It’s all good!  My own personal involvement is that I intentionally spend 4-5 sessions a week of quiet meditation.  I probably first related to its power to refresh in my early high school years when I dozed, haft listening, through many long chapel services. 

 In medical school, I was formally trained in TM, or transcendental meditation, and did that for about 10 years.  But my tradition is Christian, and I’ve evolved into a state that I think of as meditative prayer, or spiritual guided imagery.  But, my tension headaches went away with TM, and I haven’t had a headache in 30 years because of that.  And I’ve gotten rid of horrible back spasms and back pain with 20 minutes of quite “relaxation”.  

I’m intrigued.  How on earth does that work? So here’s the recent evidence.   Last year, Time Magazine had a great article that started me off.  We always thought the brain was fixed, and rigid.  You get what you were born with.  Not so, just plain not so.  Our brain grows and responds to what we expose it to.  Put someone under a functional MRI scanner, and you can watch how the brain works in response to many behaviors.  Repeat those behaviors many times, and your brain develops and grows in those areas.  For example, practice the piano, and your brain grows in those areas that control finger motions. Do Sudoku puzzles and the same thing happens.  

Now, here is the interesting part. The Dalai Lama has been challenging western neurology for years asking why you can’t consider the brain as something to be developed.  He offered monks with advanced practice in meditation to be studied under a functional MRI scanner.  As they meditated thinking about compassion, their brains lit up in ways that no one else’s does.  And in those areas, their brains are larger.  Lots of meditations, (10,000 hours) and your brain looks different.  More developed and bigger! 

 The evidence goes on and on.  We have proof that there is a persistent effect on your blood pressure after you stop meditating.  If you practice observing your own inner thoughts and feelings, you can show that observing and commenting to yourself on your own behavior can change your behavior, as well as improve pathological thinking as well as drugs do.  Best done with a psychologist, this works on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. 

 So, here is a very brief primer on how to elicit your own relaxation response.  Ready?  

1.    Find a quiet room with no interruptions, noise or pets.  

2.    Sit comfortably.  

3.    Close your eyes.  

4.    Take a deep breath and allow yourself to relax all your muscles, head to toe.  Every one.  Keep letting them let go of tension. 

5.   Then, start repeating a phrase you want to engage in.  “Compassion”.  “Om”, “God is One God”, “Forgiveness”, “Hail Mary”.  Your choice.  

6.    Repeat. Quieter, quieter, quieter.  Let the word drift away, smaller, smaller, further away.  

7.    Your brain will come up with thoughts that intrude.  That's expected.   

8.     With no guilt, no shame, no fault, when you become aware you have drifted away, return to your phrase.  

9.    Quieter, quieter, softer, gentler.  20 minutes.  

10.   You can look at your watch.  

11.     Do it twice a day for a month, your blood pressure will be lower, you will feel more creative.  Your brain will be different.  Your muscle contraction headaches will improve.  Your back pain… 

 What Will Work for Me?  That’s all I do.  I think it’s the source of much of my creativity.  It reduces my stress enormously. The evidence is in.  I live in a world where the shape of my brain is being changed by advertising, commercial temptations, career pressures all the time.  I’m trying to change it back.  I believe we have a tool at hand that works.  Our faith traditions have recognized it and plugged into it for centuries.  Let’s celebrate those.  Can you sit with a labyrinth on your lap and do the same?

The column is written by Dr. John E Whitcomb, MD, Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI.  (262-784-5300)