Meditation and mindfulness aren't just buzz words. A growing body of scientific research shows that the simple act of sitting still in thought confers long-term health benefits -- and even changes in brain function.
What exactly have scientists discovered? Here are eight scientifically backed benefits to meditation.
BENEFIT #1. Your mind gets stronger and faster.
Long-term meditation may strengthen the connections between brain cells, and might lead to larger amounts of so-called gyrification in the brain, which is linked to processing information quickly. Gyrification is a process of cortical folding, which is behind the wrinkle-like appearance of mammal brains.
BENEFIT #2. Your brain's anatomy changes.
Practiced over the long term, meditation may change the very structure of your brain. One recent study involving brain scans linked long-term meditation with increased gray matter in the brainstem. Gray matter is kind of a big deal when it comes to the brain, as it's associated with sensory perception, emotional stability, response to stress, and even intelligence.
BENEFIT #3. You process emotions differently.
Another study suggested that long-term practitioners of mindfulness meditation showed decreased activity in the right amygdala (highlighted below) during a response to stress. As the brain structure plays a key role in processing emotions, this finding supports the hypothesis that meditation boosts emotional stability.
BENEFIT #4. Pain may become less of a problem.
Meditation may also affect pain sensitivity and pain perception. Zen meditation has been associated with low sensitivity to pain in MRI studies.
BENEFIT #5. You may finally master multi-tasking.
Meditation training may improve the ability to focus in a high-stress environment, according to recent research from the University of Washington.
"While there is increasing scientific evidence that certain forms of meditation increase concentration and reduce emotional volatility and stress, until now there has been little direct evidence that meditation may impart such benefits for those in stressful, information-intensive environments," researcher Dr. David Levy, a professor at the university, said in a written statement.
BENEFIT #6. You may control your weight.
A small-scale study from UC San Francisco showed that meditation may be linked to changes in body awareness, chronic stress, and abdominal fat. How does this association play out?
“You’re training the mind to notice, but to not automatically react based on habitual patterns — to not reach for a candy bar in response to feeling anger, for example,” researcher Dr. Jennifer Daubenmier, a professor at the university's School of Medicine, said in a written statement. “If you can first recognize what you are feeling before you act, you have a greater chance of making a wiser decision.”
BENEFIT #7. You may get rid of that pesky cold.
A University of Wisconsin study on people over age 50 showed that mindfulness training can reduce the duration or severity of a cold by up to 50 percent.
BENEFIT #8. Your grades may improve.
Researchers found that students who meditated before a lecture scored better on a subsequent quiz than did students who did not meditate.
Why? Dr. Robert Youmans, cognitive psychologist and study co-author, said in a written statement, "This data from this study suggest that meditation may help students who might have trouble paying attention or focusing."