I am terrible at being quiet. I am always moving, always doing something. I am almost never still. Stillness makes me uneasy and anxious. I know this isn't good for me. Eventually, I'll burn out. My attempts at a meditation practice have been mostly lackluster. I'll get into really into it, and then abandon it later. Recently, I've been having more intense problems with my anxiety and with my ADHD, and looking for solutions in science. Along the way I found these five fascinating things that happen to your body when you practice silence for 10 minutes, and now I'm reassessing my approach to the whole thing.
In the past ten years, there has been a significant increase in the amount of studies related to mindfulness and the body's and brain's need for silence and contemplation, such as those published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies. In today's society, we're always on the go, always measuring ourselves by how productive we are and how much we can fit in a day. When science first noted the deleterious impact this way of life has on our health, they began to truly question what happens when we give our minds time to rest and be still. Researchers the world over have found that meditation and silence can have a protracted effect on both our minds and our bodies, with benefits ranging from a reduction in anxiety to a slowing down of the aging process, as the journal Frontiers in Psychology reported. The results are truly fascinating.
1. Your Sensations Are Heightened
A study in the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research from 2015 found that the practice of getting silent, even for short periods of time, can have a profound effect on how your body influences the way you interact with your emotions in both the real and even the virtual world. This is because in order to experience a full-bodied virtual experience, you must be deeply in touch with your own mind and body. They wrote that "Practicing meditation increases the capacity and propensity to experience embodied presence. Virtual worlds are experienced by the human system that is deeply grounded in bodily sensations." They noted that this understanding of your bodily presence "is a dynamic, ongoing internal process that is the active result of sustained directed attention." So in getting more in touch with what your body is feeling, you'll have a stronger connection to your "feels" as well.
2. Your Brain Begins To Rewire Itself
When I actually meditate regularly, a decrease in depression and anxiety is one of the first things I notice. Unfortunately, this is a hard message to deliver to someone who is not only plagued with ADHD and OCD, but also has a pretty Type-A personality. If I don't do it for 30 minutes every day, I feel like a failure, and I'm sure my efforts were wasted. But a recent study in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging broke down why meditation is not an all-or-nothing practice: Small bits can add up to big things; namely, a marked decrease of anxiety and depression, thus beginning a cycle of benefits. You meditate because you want to feel better, and you feel better because you meditated, so you keep meditating because it becomes easier the more you do it. Researchers also found that meditation "experts" had "highly activated brain areas beyond the meditative task itself," suggesting that long-term changes had occurred in the brain with positive effects on "empathy, meta cognitive skills and health."
The best part about this study is that it was measurable. They used brain scanning technology to determine that it was in fact working as they thought that it would, which for science lovers like me is a big deal.
3. The Aging Process In Your Brain Appears To Slow Down
I am terrified of developing Alzheimer's or dementia as I age. I watched the disease absolutely ravage my MawMaw's mind like a destructive typhoon that found its way into all the nooks and crannies of her brain, systematically eliminating both her memories and her ability to care for herself. The fact that researchers who were published in Frontiers in Psychology found that meditating might be able to slow the crippling effects of aging on the mind is enough for me to sit up and take notice.
While the research is still nascent, they wrote, and therefore not fully conclusive, imaging studies have found that "the brains of meditators appeared to be several years younger than the brains of age-matched controls. These findings seem to suggest that meditation may slow down age-related brain degeneration." And these studies were not conducted on people who spent hours in their own personal meditation den on a specially designed pillow from Etsy reading "The Sound Of Silence," either. This was a study of everyday citizens who happen to meditate, even if only for short periods of time.
They concluded by saying that "without a doubt, the accumulating scientific evidence is very encouraging, especially given that meditation is relatively easy to integrate in everyone's everyday life."
4. Your Defense Against Stress Gets Stronger
Another mass-imaging study, this one from the American Society of Neuroimaging, found that people who practice meditation and silence show higher levels of gray matter in the parts of their brain responsible for the parasympathetic response. That is jargon-y as heck, admittedly, but what it means is that people who meditate have brains better built to handle unexpected stress, so bodily functions such as respiratory and cardiac output are less likely to be negatively impacted. To put it simply, they have all the chill (when the rest of us oftentimes have none).
5. Your Brain Builds More Power To Focus
Having had ADHD my entire life, I will tell you that it's a bit like having your brain powered by an army of squirrels or a regimen of Ferrari engines with no transmission. There's a ton of energy, but it's going in all different directions. Meditation can help to improve that, suggested a study published in Nature Reviews: Neuroscience. "Mindfulness practice enhances attention," researchers wrote, explaining that changes from meditation are consistently reported in the anterior cingulate cortex of the brain, which is the region associated with attention.