In a heavily peer-reviewed environment, Jon Kabat-Zinn, often termed the ‘father of mindfulness,’ proved beyond reasonable doubt that practices of Integrative Medicine—including the marriage of meditation and medicine—made Western medical science twice as curative.
More recent studies confirm that both prayer and meditation are highly reactive in both lowering our reactivity to traumatic and negative events, and also helping preserve the aging brain. Dr. David Spiegel, associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and medical director of the center for integrative medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, explained: “Praying involves the deeper parts of the brain: the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex — the mid-front and back portions,” says Dr. Spiegel, adding that this can be seen through magnetic image resonance (MRI), which render detailed anatomical pictures. “These parts of the brain are involved in self-reflection and self-soothing.”
In another study conducted by NYU Langone Medical Center, members of Alcoholics Anonymous were placed in an MRI scanner and then shown drinking-related images to stimulate cravings—which were soon after reduced when the participants prayed. The MRI data demonstrated changes in parts of the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for the control of emotion and “the semantic reappraisal of emotion.”
Last month, researchers from UCLA found that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged. Participants who had been meditating for an average of 20 years had more grey matter volume throughout the brain — although older meditators still had some volume loss compared to younger meditators, it wasn’t as pronounced as the non-meditators. “We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating,” said study author Florian Kurth. “Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain.”
There is further data backing the idea that meditation and prayer can trigger the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain. Dr. Loretta G. Breuning, founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and the author of The Science of Positivity and Habits of a Happy Brain, explains that when we pray, we can activate neural pathways developed when young to release hormones such as oxytocin. “Oxytocin is known for its role in maternal labor and lactation, but it also [enables] social trust and attachment, giving us a good feeling despite living in a world of threat,” says Dr. Breuning. “It’s the idea of ‘I can count on something to protect me.’ So when a situation comes up and you’re out of ideas and you are helpless, feeling much like you did when you were a baby, prayer can provide some other source of hope.”
While meditation is not a panacea or cure-all, there is ample evidence that it may benefit those who practice it regularly. If you have a few minutes in the morning or evening, rather than turning on your phone or going online, see what happens if you try quieting down your mind, and paying attention to your thoughts while letting them go without reactions. If the research is accurate, a few minutes of mindful meditation may make a big difference.