Some Thoughts on Meditation: What Is It, Benefits, and Scientific Basis

In a recent article in this website "Mindfulness: Children’s Social and Emotional Health, and School" [1], we discussed "Mindfulness", and how mindfulness is a technique of meditation to relax our body and mind, to increase our concentration and reduce stress. Because in these times of the pandemic, people getting sick and dying, the need to attend schools virtually, high unemployment, poverty, discrimination, social unrest, and lack of opportunities to exercise and socialize with friends, young students may be more unhappy, feel more stress, experience more depression, and commit more suicides. One approach adopted by some schools to help young students to handle such social and emotional health problems is the focus on mindfulness.

Mindfulness is to train the mind to focus on the present task at hand, being aware of the environment but at least for that moment not overly anxious or worry by what is going on around us.  Mindfulness is also known as meditation.

This article discusses the benefits of meditation and discusses the current understanding of the scientific basis of meditation.

Health Benefits of Meditation

Even though meditation is an ancient practice dating back to several hundreds or thousands of years ago, it didn’t really spread to the U.S. until the 1960s-1970s.  Only in the past decade or two has mainstream medicine starting to acknowledge this ancient practice as research surrounding its benefits grows.  “I recommend all people learn and practice meditation routinely, because meditation doesn’t have any negative side effects – and it’s free,” paraphrasing a quote from Dr. Mike Roizen, chief wellness officer of the Cleveland Clinic..  However, we are only beginning to understand how meditation works and its benefits.  For example, here is a quote from Madhav Goyal, M.D. and M.PH. of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who does research on the effects of meditation on overall well-being:  “It’s only recently that we’re starting to see studies that are good, randomized, controlled trials that are larger in size.”

Here is a brief summary [2] of the health benefits of meditation from recent scientific investigations:

  • Improves mental health:  The strongest link we have between meditation and overall health is its ability to reduce stress, which can trigger or exacerbate several serious conditions, including heart disease, obesity, and even anxiety disorders.  Meditation can boost your mood and reduce your depression risk.

  • Reduces harmful inflammation:  Inflammation is the body’s reaction to something it doesn’t want where it is, which is a good thing.  But chronic inflammation has been tied to several major chronic diseases, like cancer, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, and Alzheimer’s.  But meditation may help to mitigate inflammation.

  • Controls your cravings:  Meditation may curb mindless eating.

  • Gives your brain a boost:  Meditation may actually make parts of your brain thicker, including areas associated with attention and introspection.  For example, one study found that mediating for 40 minutes a day for just two months was enough to increase brain volume in areas related to stress, learning, memory, empathy, perspective, and compassion.

  • Helps fight premature aging:  By reducing stress, it may also reduce the aging effect of stress.  One study after spending six days in retreat where the participants just relaxed or did a meditation program, the latter participants from their blood samples showed improvements in biomarkers related to aging.

  • Helps to prevent colds:  One study over the duration of eight weeks divided the group of 150 participants of 50 or older into three groups of meditation training, moderate-intensity exercise training, or a control group, and found that over the course of the study the first two groups took just over half as many sick days due to colds as the control group.  Again, stress can get in the way of our immune system’s ability to fight an infection such as a cold.

  • Helps to deal with pain:  In one study during an MRI scan, the participants were applied a small amount of heat to their calves and were asked to rate their pain during the scan.  After four days of meditation training, the participants repeated the process, and the study showed that they reported a 57% reduction in unpleasantness and a 40% reduction in pain intensity.  The brain scans show meditation reduced brain activity in areas associated with sensation.

Note that in these studies the word “may” appears several times indicating that these are preliminary findings.  These conclusions will need to be verified by similar and larger studies.

Scientific Basis of Meditation

The key health benefit of meditation is that it can reduce stress, which we now know that stress can lead to all kinds of health problems. [3]  Although it has been known for centuries that meditation can reduce stress, the medical basis of how the mind and body work together as one system was generally not recognized in the West until the pioneer work of Herbert Benson, M.D. at Harvard Medical School starting in the 1960s, and the pioneer work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a Ph.D. molecular biologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the 1970s. [4]  

How does meditation lead to a reduction of stress. To address this question, we need to dwell a little into the stress response. [5]  When a human is facing imminent danger or a crisis, such as a falling tree about to hit you, a speeding car heading uncontrollably toward you, an imminent deadline that is fast approaching, the human body triggers a “fight or flight response” that can release a cascade of stress hormones, including adrenaline, that produce well-orchestrated physiological changes that can make the heart pound and breathing quicken, muscles tense and beads of sweat appear.  This “flight or flight response” is part of the automated “Sympathetic Nervous System” (SNS), which acts like the gas pedal in a car and is necessary for our survival whenever we need a quick automated response to imminent danger or crisis.  However, during this period, your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, breath quickens, pupils dilated, pain response blunted, you become tense or trembling, lose voluntary control of your bladder, and your blood pressure is elevated. 

During the fight or flight response your body is trying to prioritize, so things your body doesn’t need for immediate survival is placed on the back burner. This means that digestion, reproductive and growth hormone production and tissue repair are all temporarily halted. Although these bodily responses may help you get out of danger or crisis, if continued for an extended period, it is not good for your health.  Furthermore, even when the emergency is over, your automated response doe not subside by itself for an extended period, which could be 30 minutes or more.  This means that the “Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) which acts like the brake on a car cannot restore your body to its normal operation.  If these experiences are repeated frequently, then you may be in a perpetual hyper tensed state with high blood pressure, high heart rate and rapid breathing.  This could easily lead to more serious health problems or poor health in general.

This is where meditation can help to improve your health.  Meditation can help relax you, and can quickly restore your Parasympathetic Nervous System so your body will function normally, or never let the situation to trigger your Sympathetic Nervous System.  This is the scientific basis of why meditation can be so helpful to your health.

This is why meditation is an important component of Taiji and Qigong.  More information on practicing meditation can be found in our earlier articles.  [6]

I want to end this article with a quote (half in jest) “You should meditate for 20 minutes every day – unless you’re too busy, then you should meditate for an hour.”


[1] “Mindfulness: Children’s Social and Emotional Health, and School”:

[2] “7 Science-Backed Health Benefits of Meditation, According to Experts,” by Macaela Mackenzie, Prevention Magazine, June 29, 2019:  See also “12 Science-Based Benefits of Meditation,” by Matthew Thorpe, MD, Ph.D. and Rachael Link, MS, RD, Healthline, October 27, 2020:

[3] See, e.g., the article “The Effects of Stress on Your Body,” by Ann Pietrangelo, Healthline, updated on March 29, 2020.

[4] See, e.g., Herbert Benson, Wikipedia, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wikipedia

[5] See, e.g., the article “Understanding the Stress Response,” a pamphlet published by the Harvard Health Publishing of the Harvard Medical School, updated on July 6, 2020:

[6] “Why Meditation Is An Important Part of Taiji and Qigong”:, and “Meditation:  An Often Negated Component of Taiji Practice”:

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