Over the last decade, scientists have made some new discoveries that support the ancient practice of meditation offers many advantages for modern living. Among other things, they've found that meditation can alter brain waves to reduce stress, improve mood, increase feelings of well being, stimulate creativity, and benefit overall health.
Your brain is made up of billions of neurons firing electricity across synapses. Like a symphony, these electrical signals work in unison to share information between brain cells. Because of their synchronized activity they can be linked to specific states of consciousness, your thoughts, and your mood.
The synchronized electrical buzz produced by your brain cells are known as brainwaves. They are named so because these electrical brain signals are cyclical and wave-like in nature. All of your thoughts, emotions and behaviors are the result of neurons communicating with each other, and these produce electrical pulses in the form of brainwaves.
Using sensitive equipment, scientists are able to detect the different cycles of brain-cell oscillations by measuring electricity output levels in different areas on the scalp. They've found that while all brainwaves are produced simultaneously, under certain conditions some brainwaves become more prominent and take the leading role.
For example, when you're relaxed or are sleeping your brain is producing the lowest measurable range of electrical pulses. This range can be divided into three types of electrical frequencies known as alpha (8-12 Hz), theta (3-8 Hz), and delta (.5-3 Hz) waves. Studies show that under these conditions, your body is able to regenerate and heal itself.
But as you wake up and begin your day, you start to engage in behavior, produce thoughts, and process feelings that increases the electrical buzz in your brain. This highest range of measurable elecrical frequencies can be divided into two types of brainwaves known as beta (12- 40 Hz) and gamma (40-100 Hz). While engaging in this range is necessary for our survival, remaining in it for long periods of time is linked various psycho-emotional and physical health problems, especially if a person cannot switch back to a more balanced state of brain activity that engenders relaxation and healing.
Meditation Promotes Health and Healing
One of the best ways to rebalance brainwave activity and promote relaxation and restful sleep is through meditation. Studies show that during meditation, brainwaves shift us from the alert and waking states of beta and gamma wave activity, to the more relaxed, calm and healing states of alpha, theta and delta. Meditation can also shift us into a higher state of gamma wave activity, which can open up the doors to higher levels of healing.
The most common brainwaves measured during meditation are alpha and theta waves. These brainwaves are linked to changes in the autonomic nervous system that help you relax and adapt to stress by lowering blood pressure and heart rate. They are also linked to a reduction in the amount of stress hormones in the body that not only calm the mind but also help minimize excessive weight gain (ie cortisol). These brainwaves also are linked with a reduction in pain (release of endorphins) and anxiety, and feelings of euphoria. And they are also linked to changes in metacognition related to attitudes, behavior, emotional responses, and physical disease.
Some experienced practitioners are able to engage in delta brainwave activity during meditation. This is the slowest of all five brainwave frequencies and it plays a vital role in health and well being. When we engage in delta wave activity during meditation, the immune system is activated and the body is able to regenerate itself and promote self-healing. When we are in delta, the body also releases human growth hormone (HGH), which enahances deep sleep for healing and regeneration. Delta waves are also linked to the subconscious and unconscious mind, the seat from where emotional and behavioral habits can be reprogrammed.
But too much of delta brain wave activity during meditation can make us fall asleep, which is not what meditation is intended to do.
Finally, gamma brain waves are also common during meditation, serving as a bridge to a higher spiritual connection for deeper healing. But these states of meditation are difficult to sustain and generally are only consistently experienced by advanced practitioners. In advanced practitioners, gamma waves are linked with feelings of decreased anxiety and fear, positive emotions, a decrease in depressive feelings or symptoms, and instantaneous healing.
Getting Started With Meditation
Meditation is a fairly simple mental training exercise that can be done by just about anyone who is willing to try. But it can become overwhelming or not produce any results without the proper training.
Here are a few simple guidelines to help you get started:
- Try to meditate either early in the morning or late at night
- Minimize distractions; turn phone, tv, and lights off, put the dog out, etc
- Start by taking 10 deep, slow and long breaths; breathe in and out as slowly and quietly as possible
- Concetrate on your breathing to the exclusion of any thought or emotion that comes up
- If you lose count of your breath, start back at 1 and try again until you can focus entirely on your breathing for 10 breaths
- When you can breathe 10 breaths without being interrupted by your thoughts or emotions, stop and wrap it up for the day
- Repeat this same practice for 7 straight days
- After 7 days, add 10 more breaths to your daily practice and repeat for 7 more days, and so on
You will not need much time at first. But as you continue your practice it may be helpful to also use a timer to help you keep track of time. But the idea is that you focus on building up the number of uninterrupted breaths you can take, not the amount of time you spend meditating (or trying).