If you walk up to the third floor of Buck on your average weekday night, you may find a group of students sitting in deeply reflective silence in a room toward the northeast corner. This is not a secret cult that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once took part in, nor is it an eccentric psychonaut club for hippie liberal arts students. It’s just your average mindfulness meditation class.
For those who are not familiar, meditation is simply an act of quiet, contemplation or introspective focus on a specific area of attention such as breath or a “deep feeling of universal love and compassion.” Meditation has been part of eastern religious practice for almost three millennia, yet only recently has it garnered enough attention to be studied extensively by western scientists.
For any experienced practitioner of meditation, the personal benefits are obvious: increased focus, serenity and insight into the subjective experience of the mind, and perhaps even an experience of enlightenment. However, with recent advancements in neuroimaging and genomics technology scientists are now able to measure the physiological changes that the human mind and body experiences during meditation.
Studies released over the past few years overwhelmingly suggest that meditation significantly changes your brain in positive ways. For example, a recent study from the University of Oregon used advanced fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to study the anterior cingulate cortex, a center in the brain that deals with rational cognitive decision making such as attention, concentration and focus.
The neuroscientists found that after one month of IBMT (integrative body-mind training, a form of Chinese mindfulness training,) the neurons in the anterior cingulate cortex underwent dramatic increases in density, enhancing their ability to form new connections and allowing for faster communication between cells.
The study also found a substantial decrease in the concentration of stress hormones in the blood of the participants, indicating signs of a decrease in stress, anxiety, fatigue, and depression.
This significant alteration of the neurons in the anterior cingulate is nothing less than a breakthrough in understanding the healing power of meditation practice.
As a result of the surge in recent meditation research, more and more psychologists are becoming interested in the restorative and healing effects of mindfulness meditation. This new form of treatment is especially relevant for patients with severe anxiety and depression. Mindfulness allows the patients to become more aware of the subjective experience of living in the present and, as the study from University of Oregon shows, this practice leads to an increase in the ability to control their thoughts and decrease stress.
It comes as no surprise that Counseling Services at Bowdoin not only offers meditation and mindfulness activities, but fully supports mindfulness practice as a vital antidote to the occasionally overwhelming stresses and anxieties that come from a high-achieving environment such as Bowdoin.
Come mid-semester when you’re distraught from an unremitting lab report on the auditory system of crickets or confused how to even begin a paper for your advanced Tocqueville seminar, take a moment to re-center yourself on the third floor of Buck and get rid of that river of cortisol running through your body—at least until finals.