Does the effect of saunas and showers on mental health tell us anything new about meditation and mindfulness?
I’ve recently come into contact with some exciting research linked to depression and dementia. Several academic papers suggest changes to blood circulation may positively affect mental health. A scientific study of middle-age men who practised sauna bathing in Finland indicated they were less likely to experience dementia than their peers who didn’t take saunas. A degree of support in this general direction comes from other evidence that cold showers may have a beneficial effect on depression. Over the last decade, we have also started to see claims linking open water swimming (cold water swimming) with improved mental health.
Saunas, cold showers and cold water swimming affect us in different ways, but they all share the ability to alter the body’s temperature. A rapid increase in body temperature leads to a widening (dilation) of the blood vessels, increasing the blood flow. The reverse is true when we get cold, the blood vessels become narrower, constricting the flow. We are uncertain of exactly how rapid temperature changes alter blood flow in the brain, but we can be sure it does have an impact.
So what have showers, sauna and swimming got to do with meditation? What may surprise many people is meditation can also change our heart rate and blood pressure. Since the beginnings of the scientific investigation of meditation, both physiological and psychological effects have been visible. If we go back to the 1930s, the first studies of meditators using electroencephalographic (EEG) technology observed changes to alpha waves in the brain. However, by the 1950s, scientists looked at a much more comprehensive range of changes in meditators, such as the lowering of heart rate, blood pressure and increases in skin conductivity. So from its earliest origins, contemplative science has recognised that practising meditation can lead to physical changes correlated with our mental states.
There is no question that meditation acts differently compared to physical activities in warm or cold environments. But we may find, coincidentally, that cold water swimming, saunas and meditation can all lead to fluctuations in blood flow to the brain.
The term meditation is imprecise; there are, of course, thousands of different meditation and mindfulness methods. Each distinct method is likely to have a particular effect on your mind and body. Rather like physical exercise, mind training will make most of us ‘fitter’ but not in the same way and at the same rate. So when we think about physical and mental changes from meditation, we should always be mindful of not overgeneralising. But even with the limited evidence available there is a case to argue that circulatory changes during meditation may be linked to improved mental health. And that other activities like open water swimming may possess a similar potential to mediate mental states and traits through changes to blood flow.
Despite eighty years of meditation research, science is still trying to understand what nondual meditation is.
It’s a wrong view to consider nondual compassion merely a method; it is really an entire approach to lived experience. Thus from the outset, we need to define what we mean by nondual. You will find many different ways of thinking about the ‘nondual’ in Western academic literature, but traditional forms of meditation use the term to describe one of three primary states of human consciousness. As the name implies, ‘nondual’ consciousness exists in relation to the ‘dual’, and as every new generation of nondual practitioners ‘discovers’ this means nonduality is part of a binary system. This binary system of dual and nondual describes human consciousness. Most humans spend their entire waking (and sleeping) experience fluctuating between the dual and nondual without ever realising. All Buddhist (spiritual?) meditation challenges the belief that the most common configuration of consciousness, the dual, is the only or most important way to experience life.
Several Buddhist schools have developed meditation (mind-training) methods that explicitly reduce our dependency on dualistic consciousness. Many of these nondual approaches are linked to permanent and enduring states of happiness which also have profound health benefits. What’s more, there is clear but preliminary evidence from neuroscience that the dominance of the brain network responsible for dualistic experience is linked to poor health. Unfortunately, because neuropsychology and neuroscience see the world from a dualistic perspective, only a handful of scientific studies demonstrate the importance of nondual meditation.
Many people find this subject challenging, but altering consciousness is actually the point of meditating. The way we see the world, reduce stress, increase happiness, create less damaging psychological habits are all linked to the dual-nondual relationship. There is almost nothing you can do to explain what nondual consciousness is to someone rooted in dualistic thinking (most of us). Several crucial Buddhist texts describe this problem through abstract teachings and metaphors. But as helpful as these guides are, they can take a considerable time (years) to master. However, one naturally occurring human mental state that we use every day can help us resolve the dual-nondual dichotomy; it is compassion.
Most Buddhist practices cultivate compassion, not just because it leads directly to a reduction in suffering but also for its potential as a nondual teaching aid. From both Buddhist and scientific perspectives, we know that compassion has the potential to be active in the dual and nondual brain networks. Over time this can increase the nondual experience of life. This state offers a wide range of mental and physical health benefits but can also lead to rapid spiritual development. Unfortunately practising the method alone will not necessarily develop nondual compassion, you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Similarly, meditation is mainly in the mind, so the method alone won’t guarantee positive results without the correct approach and motivation. This is one of the main reasons why a reliable teacher is essential. When we begin these practices, we can easily mistake the experience of dualistic compassion as our goal, and by concentrating on this form, we create new barriers to nondual consciousness. The danger of getting stuck in dualistic meditation is why many experienced practitioners recommend finding a reliable teacher before committing to a specific meditation practice.
Evidence has been published that suggests the benefits of compassion training may be mirrored by the drawbacks of anti-social behaviour.
I have written extensively about the benefits of prosocial behaviour both here and in other places. That compassion and kindness are correlated to improved mental and physical health. It is widely known that traditional forms of meditation frequently focus on compassion and other positive behaviours. Linking the mental states created by meditation to a more stable and productive mind. As the evidence accumulates for the benefits of compassionate practices, an uncomfortable truth also arises. What happens to us if we choose to embrace negative anti-social behaviours?
An important study into the dangers to ourselves from problem conduct (PC) was published in 2016 by Rogers and Brito1. In a review of brain imaging research, they found that youths with PC appear to have reduced grey matter volume in parts of the brain, including but not limited to the left amygdala and insula. Although this study presents interesting results, the precise causal mechanisms were not established. However, it clearly correlates problem behaviour in young people with limitations in the volume of brain structures.
Hot off the press this week was another study that broadly confirms the theory that anti-social behaviour is linked to brain size. A scientific paper by Carlisi et al. published in the Lancet2, suggests that people who persistently act in anti-social ways can expect to have some reduction in brain volume. However, that lifelong anti-social behaviour is probably required to maintain lifelong limitations in brain structure. In short that adolescence-limited antisocial behaviour did not necessarily lead to permanent differences. The evidence indicates that we have agency in developing and maintaining a healthy and fully functioning brain. It is still too early to claim that causality has been demonstrated, and as with all science these results need to be replicated and validated.
I’m inclined to see some positive signs from this evidence. That although anti-social behaviour appears to harm society and limit the brain development of the individual. We have a degree of control over these processes. By stopping negative behaviours, brain development may return to ‘normal’ levels. If anything, this further strengthens the case for the use of meditation, particularly nondual approaches that establish an understanding of the needs of self in harmony with others.
1Rogers, J. C., & De Brito, S. A. (2016). Cortical and subcortical gray matter volume in youths with conduct problems: a meta-analysis. JAMA psychiatry, 73(1), 64-72.
Why do people meditate? You might be surprised by the answer.
Want to know why people meditate?
Having introduced hundreds of people to meditation over the last fifteen years, the question of why do people meditate has always fascinated me. When I used to teach traditional Buddhist meditation many people would declare an interest in Buddhism or spirituality, but there was generally another reason that encouraged them to come to a class. Many came because they wanted some support with a health problem, either mental or physical and they thought that Buddhist meditation could offer them something. People attended classes to accompany their friends or because they were suffering a sense of loss, or were looking for direction in their life. But only a small minority meditated because they wanted to become a Buddhist or for some kind of spiritual development.
So interested was I in this question that I undertook some research while at the university, running a project asking people about their reasons for starting meditation. Health and wellbeing proved to be the single most popular answer both for traditional practitioners and secular mindfulness students, accounting for 55% of respondents. Although it now appears widely accepted that meditation can reduce stress and anxiety, and lead to increased levels of self reported happiness how this is achieved is still somewhat obscured. In particular if meditation has a lasting effect on behaviour then it must have a role in maintaining/changing brain structure and function.
“regular meditators with younger brains than non meditators”
This is the new frontier for contemporary meditation research, how does meditation change the brain and what are the likely effects of it? Evidence is suggestive that meditation can make a positive impact on your overall brain health and in one study regular meditators had brains seven years younger than non-meditators. The point is that meditation’s real potential is in changing brain structure, this is particularly relevant when talking about, the ageing brain, mild cognitive impairment and neurodegeneration. We are starting to see the first wave of meditation methods specifically designed to allow people to improve brain health generally. Given the pessimistic predictions surrounding dementia this seems like a trend set to continue.
Meditation and brain health, the latest research urges that we prioritize dementia prevention.
The need to prevent dementia highlighted in latest research
The latest large scale research into dementia, Parkinson’s disease and stroke has confirmed that one in two women and one in three men will develop at least one of these diseases during their lifetime. The research offers insight into the long term health of people in their 40s. But in addition to highlighting the stark statistical probability of succumbing to neurodegeneration, the study suggests that delaying the onset of the these illness for 1 – 3 years may reduce the risk of avoiding them altogether by 20% to 50%.
It is widely recognised that a number of lifestyle factors can increase the probability of avoiding dementia. Stopping smoking, adopting a healthy diet and taking regular exercise have long been associated with improved physical and mental health. Recent scientific studies have also given the strongest indications yet that some forms of meditation might be directly reducing the rate at which a brain ages, enabling us to maintain full brain (cognitive) function for longer. We know that cognitive decline begins in our late 20s and early 30s. It will normally be visible by the age of 45. If our cognitive ability continues to shrink through middle age it can lead to a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment and eventually even dementia.
“one study revealed that at the age of 50, regular meditators had brains several years younger than non-meditators”
Research has shown that meditation can lead to a slowing of brain ageing and an improvement to certain brain functions such as memory and attention. Although the understanding of how meditation is able to help create new brain structure is still at a preliminary stage. There is compelling evidence that some forms of meditation are related to maintaining, and in some respects improving our brain health. Although brain training (including meditation) can reduces the risk of developing dementia it is just one of a number of things we can do to live longer healthier lives.
A unique opportunity for meditation and mindfulness in Kent
Cutting edge meditation comes to Canterbury, book a class!
Mind training has been undergoing a revolution over the last decade with different forms of meditation and mindfulness being offered in diverse settings including, schools, prisons and the workplace. However one of the groups least catered for in terms of meditation is adults over 40, even though this age range might get the greatest benefits from regular meditation practice. Scientific research has demonstrated a relationship between regular meditation and improved brain (cognitive) functions such as memory and attention. The first visible signs of cognitive decline tend to be visible during our 40s, and their deterioration can continue for the rest of our lives, potentiality leading to increased cognitive impairment and eventually dementia. However when practiced regularly meditation is linked to maintaining a younger, healthier brain.
“Cognitive decline begins at about the age of 30 perhaps earlier, most people will have visible signs of an ageing brain in their 40s, this decline can ultimately develop into mild cognitive impairment and even dementia!”
The evidence indicates that we start to experience cognitive decline in our late 20s to early 30s, this is described as brain aging and it is progressive process. Today neuroscience has shown that the rate at which a brain ages is connected to our environment as well as our genes. Lifestyle choice such as if we smoke, what we eat and how we live our lives can have a dramatic impact on brain health and the speed of cognitive decline. Recent research demonstrated that regular meditators had brains seven years younger than non meditators at age 50. Neuroscience research has also confirmed that new brain structure can be created throughout our lives.
Trained neuroscientist and meditation researcher Stephen Gene Morris is opening a Brain Renewal Meditation (BRM) class in Canterbury. BRM combines the latest scientific research from cognitive psychology and neuroscience with established meditation
methods. BRM is based on traditional compassion mind training and mindfulness meditation. The practice is suitable for any adult, requires no prior knowledge or meditation experience. BRM is appropriate for anyone over the age of 18 but it has been created specifically for people of 40 and older. The meditation is primarily a compassion based practice which means the method is linked to the aspiration to reduce suffering for oneself and other. As Stephen explains “compassion is a reliable method of brain training, it’s been around for a long time, in its BRM configuration it uses the most useful elements of mindfulness and nondual meditation”.
“BRM engages the mechanisms for self interests and wider empathy networks, it promotes brain health and is linked to increasing a positive and engaged outlook.”
Evidence indicates that brain structure and function can be maintained and augmented through particular forms of meditation.
Taking responsibility is the key to brain health
In recent decades psychology and neuroscience have made progress in explaining brain functions and dysfunctions. But we still know far too little about how the human brain ages. In studies linked to meditation and mindfulness the vast majority of research (I’d estimate in excess of 80%) has been undertaken with participants under the age of 25. There is some research interest in people of retirement age and with people suffering from particular health problems. But if you trawl the academic databases for investigations of the effects of meditation on people in the 30 to 65 age range you will find relatively few studies and even fewer reliable conclusions. The irony of this lack of research is that this is the age at which cognitive decline is supposed to happen (from the early 30’s onward). It’s also supposed that dementia typically starts its journey in middle age, perhaps decades before the full symptoms manifest.
A concept that can be found throughout psychology and neuroscience is ‘age related cognitive decline’; the general correlation between age and brain function/structure. It is a pretty uncontroversial idea, we all carry around the stereotype that as we get older we can expect to experience ‘senior moments’, a lowering in cognitive ability. I’m not going to dispute that this does appear to be the pattern. But my experience of meditation is that the rate of cognitive decline is flexible. I’ve seen the transformation in people’s ability to think, problem solve and remember. There is also some evidence from neuroscience to support the premise that decline in cognitive function can be influenced by a range of activities, meditation in particular. This is not to say that meditation may keep your brain forever young, rather that you have a degree of control over how your own brain ages.
Whilst certain forms of meditation do appear to be linked to improved cognitive function, the neuroscience is at a preliminary stage. It’s clear that different forms of meditation have different effects, and meditation isn’t the only thing we can we can do to influence the development of brain function and structure. It should always be considered that just as some activities appear to support brain rejuvenation, others have the opposite effect. Anyone over the age of 30 is likely to benefit from maintaining, and where possible increasing cognitive function, meditation however is a cornerstone of this process. Keeping your body in good shape takes some time, effort and commitment, this is also true of mind training