Now Just Relax…

New research suggests that if you can learn to play tennis, you can learn to be happy.

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Daily relaxation is now a doctor’s order. It comes from one of the most influential names in medicine, former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher. At a recent meeting of doctors and health policy makers, Satcher presented an amended version of his long-touted “prescription for health”. The prescription advises Americans to practice regular physical activity, eat fresh fruits and vegetables, avoid toxins like tobacco and illicit drugs, and be responsible in sexual behavior.

Recently, Satcher added a fifth item to the list: Participate in relaxing and stress-reducing activities daily. The benefits of relaxation, he said, are invaluable for good health, especially good mental health.

When I went to check the scientific basis of this welcome proclamation, I discovered that one of the most reliable methods of relaxation — meditation — had become a serious subject of scientific investigation in recent years. Many of the recent studies were well-designed, randomized-controlled trials, some funded by highly-regarded institutions like the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Many found a measurable benefit from the practice of meditation. Benefits include reduced high blood pressure and heart disease, improved concentration, lessened pain, and improved quality of life among people who are sick with chronic diseases. Less surprisingly but just as importantly, studies also showed that meditation reduced stress. Not bad for something that requires little more than perseverance, takes less than an hour a day, and doesn’t involve dieting or going to the gym.

To back up all of these positive benefits, researchers have also mapped how meditation actually alters resting brain patterns, changes how the brain functions. It is also associated with increased cortical thickness in brain areas important for sensory, cognitive, and emotional processing, according to researchers.

Now, a new study from University of Wisconsin-Madison has revealed that meditation can dramatically change brain regions, which in turn can make a person more kind and compassionate. So-called compassion meditation includes concentrating on wishing loved ones and others well-being and freedom from suffering.

The researchers used fMRI to compare the brains of a group of Tibetan monks and lay practitioners who were experienced in compassion meditation with those of a control group of people with limited experience in this practice. The brains scans of the experienced meditators showed significantly greater activity in areas associated with empathy.

These findings indicated that, through training, people can actually develop skills that promote happiness and compassion, according to the researchers. That is, positive emotions can be learned just as playing a musical instrument or being proficient in a sport can be learned. The authors suggested that individuals with emotional problems like depression or adolescents who bully others could benefit from compassion meditation, and that the practice could even promote more harmonious relationships of all kinds.

It appears, then, that meditation succeeds on many levels. In hand with peace and enlightenment for the self, it can also spread compassion and kindness into the world, just as the hippies once told us that it would. And at the same time, it improves health and well-being. Is this a winning solution for making America a better place? Perhaps science, along with the prescription from medical leaders like Dr. Satcher, is guiding the way to making this mystical practice mainstream. • 5 May 2008

SOURCE: Lutz A, Brefczynski-Lewis J, Johnstone T, Davidson RJ. Regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion by compassion meditation: effects of meditative expertise. PLoS ONE. 2008;3:e1897.

 

Jennifer Fisher Wilson is the science reporter for Annals of Internal Medicine. Her stories are available at www.annals.org.

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