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Why has meditation recently become popular?

You may be wondering why mindfulness seems to have become a buzzword in the past couple of years, with more companies offering mindfulness at work programs, radio shows discussing the benefits or even some of your friends getting into it. Or you may be a long-term meditator wondering why it seems to have taken until now for the West to get interested. What is special about this particular time in history that has caused a resurgence of a practice that has existed for thousands of years?

In a nutshell, it’s not a trend or a phase. I believe that meditation today is going through a boom similar to the jogging boom of the late 60s, and that like jogging, will only continue to grow in popularity and soon be perceived as an unremarkable or normal part of a healthy lifestyle. In this post I’ll briefly lay out how relatively recent advances in our understanding of the brain and research into the neurological effects of meditation are shifting the public perception of meditation. From a pseudo-religious, hippy, potentially cultish, fringe activity to a rationally advisable thing to do based on cutting-edge science.

When Ron Burgundy can’t remember how to pronounce jogging, it’s funny, but it’s also not that far-fetched. In the 70s when Anchorman is set, jogging was only just coming onto the scene and was still regarded by many as a strange thing to do. That’s hard to believe today when it has become the go-to physical exercise for many people but not that long ago you might have heard someone ask you, ‘What are you running from?’.

You can understand the jogging boom in the 70s and 80s when you look at two key drivers; an acute public health concern and the development of our understanding of the cardiovascular system. The term hypokinetic was coined in the 60s to describe the growing number of diseases being caused by sedentary lifestyles. At the same time, cardiologists started to understand the importance of physical exercise which had previously been seen as a strain on the body and to be avoided. These two factors; a public need and new science, created the perfect conditions for jogging to spread and today we see it as something that is pretty reasonable to do if you want to keep healthy.

Today’s explosion of meditation in public awareness has similar roots in a bed of new neuroscience and a growing desire for improved mental wellbeing. Whilst meditation remains a pretty ‘out there’ activity in many people’s minds, I don’t think it’s hard to imagine a future where it is considered a completely natural, if not encouraged, thing to do to maintain a healthy mind. The evidence is mounting and we are already starting to see trials of mindfulness in schools. So what exactly has changed recently to bring meditation to the fore?

Mental wellbeing

Brain science technology

The second key development is big leaps forward in technology such as EEG, fMRI and MRI which allow us to study the brain. These technologies are used to measure electrical activity, blood flow and structural changes respectively and in future posts I will be looking at the details of what each of these technologies can tell us about the meditating brain. The important point here is that these methods give a direct window into what is happening inside the brain, which was not available before. In the early days of meditation, research experimenters were limited to subjective reporting or less direct indicators of internal states such as heart rate, sweat response, etc. This meant that the results simply weren’t that insightful and in fact very few of the studies from before 2010 are considered rigorous enough to represent true evidence of meditation’s effects.

(Goldman & Davidson, 2017)

Where will this lead?

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