Mental Conditioning: The Science of Meditation

One geneticist Ph.D.- turned Tibetan monk, Matthieu Ricard, (pictured below) was declared the “world’s happiest man” due to his production of high-frequency gamma wave activity and abnormally active left prefrontal cortex.[1]


Ricard demonstrated the incredible power of meditation to alter both shape and function of the brain.

But meditation is not just for monks. Many high-performing individuals have talked publicly about meditation as a key component of their daily routine, including Steve Jobs, Ray Dalio, Oprah Winfrey, Howard Stern, Clint Eastwood, and Kobe Bryant. Tim Ferriss, author of the book Tools of Titans, interviewed hundreds of the most successful people in the world and found that about 80% of them have a regular meditation practice. 

As these professionals will attest, meditation is the primary tool that we have at our disposal for taming the mind and bringing it under our control. In a world that is constantly pulling us out of the present, distracting us from what’s important, and creating stress, meditation is the most potent antidote. It has the power to transform our lives by giving us conscious control over our minds.

What is Meditation, actually?

Meditation is the act of improving our brain’s software programming through applied mental training. 

There’s a common misconception that meditation is a rather boring state of empty mind without thoughts. But meditation is in fact a method for achieving a heightened state of awareness and it does become quite enjoyable with continued practice. Experienced meditators exhibit high-frequency gamma waves while meditating, as neurons fire quickly throughout the brain.[2] 

Practiced over 5,000 years ago in India, meditation has long been considered a spiritual practice associated with the far East. Now, Western neuroscience and psychology are finally catching up to provide scientific validity to what eastern philosophies have known for many centuries. 


A Darwinian Understanding of Meditation

Natural selection didn’t design your mind to see the world clearly; it designed your mind to have perceptions and beliefs that would help take care of your genes. – Robert Wright, Professor of Psychology at Princeton 

What are you thinking about right now? Whether we contemplate our next meal, taking a shower, or some awkward interaction we had earlier in the day, our thoughts can be linked back to survival needs. With potentially limitless information entering our attention, our evolved minds focus on that which was useful for survival and reproduction (even if that is no longer the case in the modern world).

Unfortunately, it’s an evolutionary advantage not to feel satisfied for too long, otherwise we wouldn’t be an effective species. Although our negative thoughts and emotions no longer help us survive and reproduce, we struggle to get rid of them. This evolutionary baggage is an outdated software program that causes unnecessary suffering. 

The Mechanics of Suffering

 Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. – Haruki Murakami

Our minds control our bodies in the sense that they control our nervous systems (and hence hormones). Imagine: you think you’ve lost your car keys. You begin to worry about finding them and start to imagine being late to your meeting. Then you picture yourself getting fired and losing your job over it. These thoughts cause your flight-or-flight program (sympathetic nervous system, or SNS) to ‘rev up’ and release a cascade of stress hormones. You frantically search for your keys… and it turns out they were in your coat pocket.

Since our mental activity controls our physiology, it’s not hard to see why thought alone can be so transformative. Your body can’t tell the difference between an anxious thought and the real scenario, so if you’re constantly under mental stress, this will activate the SNS. 

The problem in the modern world is that we are constantly aggravating the SNS. We are always throwing our bodies into imbalance by perceiving threats that don’t exist in reality because in the past it was beneficial to overestimate danger. The result of SNS activation is increased cortisol (stress hormone) and epinephrine (adrenaline), produced by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). Increased cortisol means lower dopamine and serotonin (“happy chemicals”) and less memories formed. This is the machinery of suffering. 

Meditation allows us to cool down the simulator and experience the present moment. In doing so, it activates the “rest and digest” program (parasympathetic nervous system, or PNS), releasing a calming series of hormones that break the stress response cycle. The PNS brings your mind and body into a state of homeostasis and calm.

In a world that is constantly doing the opposite – unnecessarily stressing us out – it becomes clear why meditation is so valuable.

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[2]Lutz, Antoine, et al. "Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice." Proceedings of the national Academy of Sciences 101.46 (2004): 16369-16373.

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