This weekend, don’t just relax. Really take time to breathe, and focus on just your breath or the small sensations in your body as you sit still. It’s good for you, according to science.
For years, meditation has been associated with all kinds of benefits, such as increased happiness, more self-control, and better social skills. But so far, it’s been hard to quantify exactly how those benefits are linked with the act of sitting still and focusing your thoughts.
New research published (paywall) in Biological Psychiatry took at look at the physical benefits of meditation in a double-blind study with 35 adults who reported that they were experiencing high levels of stress. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon found that adults who attended a three-day meditation retreat showed slightly different patterns of connectivity in their brains afterward, particularly in the regions associated with executive control. They also experienced slight decreases in the amount of a chemical associated with stress. These results contrasted with patients selected to go to a rote relaxation workshop, who afterwards showed a slight increase in the same stress-related chemical and no changes in their brain activity.
“We’ve now seen that mindfulness meditation training can reduce inflammatory biomarkers in several initial studies, and this new work sheds light into what mindfulness training is doing to the brain to produce these inflammatory health benefits,” David Creswell, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon and lead author of the paper, said in a press release.
For the study, researchers identified 35 men and women who were unemployed and highly-stressed, based on a self-reported survey. They collected blood and brain scans from the participants, before sending 18 of them to a three-day meditation retreat, and the other 17 to a ”sham” three-day relaxation retreat, as The New York Times (paywall) called it. Actual meditation requires participants to focus solely on any sensations in the body—even unpleasant ones like anxiety. In the mindfulness meditation retreat, participants were taught to be mindful throughout all of their activities, including eating, stretching, and even walking around. Though participants in the relaxation retreat engaged in similar activities, they did so in a “restful rather than a mindful way,” as the researchers write. In other words, rather than thinking about the activity at hand, relaxation participants focused more on ignoring their stresses instead of the tasks at hand.
Even though all participants reported feeling lighter after the course, their brain scans were different. Scans from the group that meditated showed greater measures of connectivity through parts of the brain associated with calmness and stress. Additionally, blood samples showed that the levels of Interleukin-6, a chemical associated with stress and inflammation, were slightly lower in participants who attended the meditation retreat.
The researchers concluded that meditation, and not just relaxation, was associated with changes in neural networks, which may lead to decreased amounts of Il-6, “which in turn is associated with improvements in a marker of inflammatory disease risk.”
Researchers are still unclear on the mechanisms behind this apparent connection in neural activity and inflammatory chemicals. The study’s small sample size makes it difficult to confidently extrapolate the results and the effects, though significant, were minimal. Additionally, they don’t know if the affects of a 3-day retreat are equivalent to meditating for just a few minutes on a daily basis.
There’s still a lot of work to be done to understand how and why meditation works, but it may be worth it to take the time to meditate, just a little bit. You can even do it on the subway, a place where you might need it most, regardless of its physical benefits.