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Meditation Goes Mainstream

Quiet contemplation gains ground as treatment aids in certain ailments.

About the time the Beatles went to visit their guru in India in the late 1960s, American cardiologist Herbert Benson, M.D., was noticing that his patients often had high blood pressure during their regular checkups.
He suspected, and later showed through studies, that the cause was not primary hypertension but the stress of the office visit itself. The cure was changing patients’ thought patterns through what he called the relaxation response. Benson used various kinds of meditative practices—including deep breathing, walking, tai chi and yoga—to elicit the relaxation.

Shortly after that, Kabat-Zinn became interested in the connection between mind and body, and in particular how stress affects health. His mindfulness-based stress reduction is now taught in prisons, schools, hospitals and corporations, and practiced by athletes and cardiac patients, people suffering from pain or anxiety, and kids with attention-deficit disorder, among others.

Both Benson and Kabat-Zinn have been central in developing a scientific underpinning for their theories. But despite the growing stack of studies showing benefits for a diverse group of physical and mental ailments, many critics remain skeptical. In 2007 the University of Alberta, under contract with the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, analyzed many of these studies and found that the state of the research was “beset with uncertainty.”

Richard J. Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin and researcher of meditation and the brain, points out that major work in the field is just beginning. An experienced meditator himself, Davidson has done important research showing that the effects of meditation can be seen on magnetic resonance images of the brain, and that MRIs of people who have meditated regularly over many years indicate that these people can slip easily into a state of effortless concentration. The idea that meditation can change the brain is an important step toward showing how and exactly what it changes.

Another study, published in a 2006 Archives of Internal Medicine, found that transcendental meditation can improve blood pressure, insulin resistance and heart rate variability, all factors in heart disease. Transcendental meditation involves silently repeating a word or short phrase to focus attention and calm the mind.

Small studies have also indicated meditation is useful in treating congestive heart failure, depression, chronic pain, psoriasis, anxiety and addiction.

And Davidson speculates that by meditating, older people may develop increased “attentional skills” that could compensate for deficits in memory, but he stresses that this theory is still conjecture.

Sheila Jowsey, M.D., a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., has enough clinical observations to be convinced of meditation’s value to some patients. She has encouraged the practice in organ transplant patients, who are very ill and usually frustrated or depressed by the wait for life-saving organs.

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