It's hard to imagine a scientific experiment that could solve the mysteries of meditation and turn a spiritual practice into hard facts and numbers. Over the years, many scientists have attempted to dissect this instinctive process either to reveal its secrets or determine its level of authenticity. Amidst the vast majority of studies which are riddled with inconclusive results, a few well executed experiments remain as gems that shine high above the meager rest.
Probably the best known of these studies was conducted by Herbert Benson, an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Back in 1985, Benson invited Tibetan monks to sit in a room at 40 degrees Fahrenheit to find out if it was possible to produce body heat using the mind alone. Sheets were dipped in cold water and placed over the monks shoulders. Using a technique known as “Tum-mo” the monks managed to dry the sheets entirely in less than an hour. An untrained person could easily die in such cold conditions if they were exposed for prolonged periods of time. Although the fascinating temperature changes were measured, no scientific explanation could have been found for how the unusual heat had been produced.
Another meditation study that stands out in more recent times was done by researchers from Yale, Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They monitored the brains of 20 experienced meditators and 15 people who had never mediated before. An increase of gray matter was found in areas of the brain used for attention and sensory processing in the group experienced with meditation. It was also proposed that meditation could help prolong good health in the brain and help to preserve mental processing through the aging process.
Schoormans and Nyklicek from the Department of Medical Psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands conducted an experiment to better understand the differences in the effects of two different types of meditation, transcendental and mindfulness. Participants were given questionnaires on mindfulness skills, duration and frequency of meditation and psychological well-being. Both groups yielded remarkably similar results which meant little could be determined except that the participants who mediated longer had less stress and superior cognitive functioning.
Although the results of these experiments do not explain everything, they confirm the relevancy of meditation in our lives and it's thanks to these interesting studies that meditation is widely accepted by westerners as a powerful skill that can be good for our mental and physical health. Perhaps in the future an even more extensive, detailed study will be done in the hope of finding more revealing answers to the questions that many of us still have.