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What is the Science of Meditation?

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These days it seems meditation is everywhere: in schools, universities, hospitals, and therapists’ offices; on YouTube and Instagram, and in meditation apps like Calm or Headspace. Meditation is no longer the strange practice your barefoot, hippie cousin swears by. But meditation isn’t just another trend. It’s a mind-training technique that neuroscientists have studied for the past two decades to prove its benefits for mental health and well-being.

Traditionally, people meditated as a form of spiritual development: to bring out their best qualities like kindness, compassion, and altruism. Recent scientific investigations into the health benefits of meditation are giving people another practical reason to meditate, with neuroscience validating many beneficial health effects of meditation. While meditation research is still at an early stage, studies so far suggest a long list of the benefits of meditation that are appealing to everyone, not just those on a spiritual path. These studies have been empirically proven in randomized controlled trials and with scientific instruments like FMRI scanners and EEGs.

What are the scientific benefits of meditation?

man in all black meditating

With the influx of recent meditation research, we are getting a much better understanding of the measurable mental and physical health benefits of meditation.

  • Decrease blood pressure
    • Meditation has been proven to decrease blood pressure, reduce inflammation, regularize circadian rhythms, and stabilize glucose metabolism. One study found that practicing meditation over the course of eight weeks increased the subject’s levels of nitric oxide—the molecule that helps keep blood pressure under control—while the control group’s levels stayed the same.
    • This benefit of meditation is potentially life-saving, because high blood pressure is a leading cause of death in the United States. By decreasing your blood pressure you significantly lower your risk of mortality by heart attack or stroke.
  • Improve happiness
    • Scientific studies have established that one of the biggest causes of happiness is simply being focused on what you are doing, whatever it may be. The activity itself matters less than staying present and aware of your activity, a key outcome of training the mind with mindfulness meditation.
    • Mind-wandering, on the other hand, is associated with decreased levels of happiness. A study was conducted to test whether meditation truly decreased mind-wandering and therefore increased overall happiness. The results showed that the part of the brain responsible for mind-wandering significantly decreased activity within the mindfulness meditation group while remaining unchanged in the control group.
    • Not only does meditation decrease mind-wandering during meditation, but these effects can be maintained and strengthened if one has a regular meditation practice.
  • Reduce symptoms of depression, stress, and anxiety
    • Harvard Health outlined how meditation can reduce stress and anxiety, which in turn decreases depression. Two of the primary brain regions that neuroscientists link with depression are the medial prefrontal cortex (me-center) and amygdala (fear center). The medial prefrontal cortex reacts to stress and anxiety, which consequently signals the amygdala to release the stress hormone cortisol. Meditation breaks this connection by lessening your reaction to stress and anxiety, which then signals the amygdala to release less cortisol, keeping stress levels under control.
    • Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a specific clinical meditation technique developed to systematically reduce stress through mindfulness practice. Though first developed for stress, it has since been proven to also have a positive effect in combatting a variety of chronic illnesses including depression, anxiety, chronic pain, cancer, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and immune disorders.
  • Improve focus and memory
    • Another study found that a 2-week mindfulness training course improved reading comprehension scores and working memory capacity. This was coupled with the reduction of distracting thoughts during testing, with a decrease in the activity of the brain’s regions associated with mind-wandering after the mindfulness training.
    • The improvements in focus and memory from meditation practice are not limited to the moments during or right after meditation. With a regular meditation practice, one can maintain these benefits throughout the day or even the week.
  • Improve self-control and addictive habits
    • Through the investigation of how meditation training could reduce smoking cravings, psychologists found that meditation could improve self-control capacity and therefore lessen addictive habits. After the meditation training, activity in the areas of the brain related to addiction decreased. Many addictions are related to negative emotions and stress, so meditation is a useful tool since it can also help regulate these two experiences.
    • An interesting aspect of this study was that the participants were not interested in quitting smoking nor were they asked to. Their smoking habits and cravings naturally decreased with the meditation training. Some participants didn’t even notice they were smoking less until the final self-report questionnaires.
  • Reduce chronic pain symptoms
    • A meditation practice can expand the brain regions related to reducing chronic pain. Interestingly, decreasing sensitivity through mindfulness training worked not by asking participants to ignore pain, but by developing mindful awareness and openness to pain. The reason this works is that avoidance tends to increase anxiety, which increases sensitivity to pain and other negative health and mental states. So mindful openness to pain can actually reduce pain.
    • One benefit of using meditation as an aid for chronic pain is that isn’t simply suppressing the pain—like pain medications—it is a long-term solution for addressing the root neurological causes of pain.
  • Improve sleep
    • People have trouble sleeping for a variety of reasons, but two commons one are issues with mental health and chronic pain. Meditation helps with mental health—increasing happiness and decreasing stress and anxiety—by regulating brain activity in specific areas of the brain.
    • Once again, in some situations, meditation may be more useful than medication because it addresses the root cause of sleeplessness rather than simply suppressing symptoms. Since many sleep medications can also be highly addictive, meditation is a healthy alternative that provides many other health benefits and can be practiced for an entire lifetime without adverse side effects.

How does a regular meditation practice affect the brain?

black and white brain scans

The biggest impact a regular meditation practice offers the brain is increased neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability to change our brain structure and organization through the creation of new neural pathways. This can be achieved through exercise, habit, and meditation.

Scientists like Harvard alumnus Dr. Richie Davidson have pioneered the study of meditation and neuroplasticity. In demonstrating the link between mental health and meditation practice, Davidson has shown that people can learn happiness and compassion as trainable skills, just like you can learn to play a musical instrument, cook, or improve in a sport like basketball or golf.

Studies have shown that through meditation programs, people increase their neuroplasticity, changing the brain itself to positively alter the way they see themselves, others, and the world. However, besides creating new neural pathways and synapses, what are the exact effects of increasing neuroplasticity in the brain through meditation?

  • Increase of gray matter
    • Several studies have found that with a regular meditation practice more gray matter is created in the frontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for memory and executive decision-making. More grey matter in this part of the brain leads to enhanced memory and better control of emotions, social skills, impulses, and motor functions.
    • Neuroscientists also found thickening in gray matter in other areas of the brain is associated with increased mental health and is an important factor in happiness levels.
  • Decrease in amygdala size
    • Another study found that meditation could decrease the size of the amygdala, the fight-or-flight area of the brain responsible for anxiety, fear, and stress. A smaller amygdala does not necessarily signify less anxiety or depression, but what can be noted is that this shrinking in size tends to correlate with participants‘ self-reported perceptions of stress.
  • Preservation of the brain
    • The increase of gray matter mentioned earlier also improves the preservation of brain tissue. A recent study found that long-term meditators had “better-preserved brains” compared to non-meditators.
    • Those with ‘age-defying’ brains enjoy the benefits of enhanced memory, mental health, happiness levels and better control of emotions, social skills, impulses, and motor functions for longer.
  • Decreases activity in the default mode network (DMN)
    • This network—nicknamed the “monkey mind”—is active when our minds wander. This state of detaching from the present moment has been found to lead to unhappiness. The changes in your brain that come about from meditation’s effect on neuroplasticity can decrease mind-wandering and improve focus, which can improve overall happiness and satisfaction.
  • Optimizing brainwave activity
    • Our brainwaves are the electrical impulses that communicate our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Meditation can affect our brain waves in a beneficial manner.
    • Through a regular meditation practice and its positive effect on neuroplasticity, people experience more optimum brainwaves that favor better sleep, focus, mental health, learning, and memory.

What types of meditation are most beneficial?

girl in savasana

There are many forms of meditation, but most types of meditation will lead to many of the same scientifically-proven benefits noted above. Most meditations have the basic elements of focused attention, still positioning, and breathwork. The most important thing is to choose the kind of meditation that feels right for you. That said, here are some of the most popular types of meditation for those seeking physical and mental health benefits.

  1. Mindfulness meditation
    • This type of meditation focuses on being present in the moment by releasing judgmental thoughts and staying open to all thoughts and sensations. In this practice, you simply observe thoughts, feelings, and external factors. This can require patience and discipline. Mindfulness meditation is especially popular among those struggling with anxiety, depression, and addiction.
    • Body scan meditation
      • If you take yoga classes, you may be familiar with this mindfulness practice; it is a common guided meditation that yoga teachers use during savasana. With a body scan meditation, the intention is to focus attention on each part of your body without judgment. The effects of mindfulness include improvement of body awareness and increased relaxation.
      • The body scan meditation technique is also highly recommended by stress reduction expert Jon Kabat-Zinn for those suffering from chronic pain.
  1. Mantra meditation
    • In a mantra meditation, one repeats a word or phrase—a mantra—as a way to boost awareness and concentration. You can choose a traditional mantra, such as shanti (the Sanskrit word for peace), or an affirmational phrase, such as “I am grounded in this moment.” Mantra meditation is especially helpful in improving mood, anxiety, fatigue, and memory. This is a great meditation practice for beginners or those who experience a lot of mind-wandering.
      • Transcendental meditation
        • This is a silent mantra meditation. It is commonly practiced for 15-20 minutes a day and unlike mindfulness meditation, does not involve monitoring of the thoughts or concentration. The main benefits are deep inner peace, clarity of mind, and a healthier heart. Those suffering from depression, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, ADHD, or on the autism spectrum may find this especially useful.
  1. Analytical meditation
    • This meditation is particularly developed in Tibetan Buddhism, including the Dalai Lama‘s Lamrim Tradition. For those new to Buddhism, analytical meditation may seem like the opposite of meditation. In analytic meditation, you conjure an active stream of thoughts, images, and emotions that gradually steer your mind toward beneficial thoughts, feelings, and habits. This meditation not only calms the mind, it changes the mind. Analytical meditation is a great way to develop healthy habits through neuroplasticity, further understand yourself, and increase your positive states of mind and the positive effect you have on the people and the world around you.
    • Visualization meditation
      • When practicing a visualization meditation, you imagine certain ideas, events, goals, or people in your mind’s eye. This is a powerful practice that is popular among athletes, those with chronic pain, and people who want to improve overall well-being and mental health. In Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions, visualizations may involve beautiful idealized realms and beings that represent purified and perfected qualities like love, wisdom, or compassion.
    • Loving-kindness meditation
      • Also called love and compassion meditation, this Buddhist practice can be done as a visualization practice. If you are a beginner, one way to practice this meditation technique is in five stages of five minutes each. The stages progress through feeling love in your own heart, thinking of someone you love, loving someone you feel neutral towards, loving someone you dislike, and finally, sending love to the whole world.

Disclaimer: This post is not medical advice. Before taking on a specific meditation practice or other treatment for a psychological or health problem, please consult a psychologist or medical professional regarding your specific condition.



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