Should We All Be Meditating?

Are there science-based benefits from taking time out to meditate?


Ben Taub


Ben Taub

Freelance Writer

Benjamin holds a Master's degree in anthropology from University College London and has worked in the fields of neuroscience research and mental health treatment.

Freelance Writer

A monkey meditating under a tree. Part of the tree looks like a brain.

Traditional Buddhist meditation depicts the mind as a disobedient monkey.

Image Credit: James Rodrigues, Modified from Envato Market, sergio34/iStock, Taisiia Iaremchuk/iStock, Jenny On The Moon/iStock

This article first appeared in Issue 11 of our free digital magazine CURIOUS. 

In the Buddhist tradition, meditation is seen as a path to enlightenment and a tool to realize the Fourth Noble Truth: that there is a way to end our worldly suffering. While modern science tends not to deal in such mystical notions, there is some evidence to suggest that the practice enhances mental health, soothes the body, and might even alter the structure of the brain.


Likewise, while the first three Noble Truths outline the ubiquitousness of suffering in the world, it is now widely accepted that everyday stress and anxiety can be pathological experiences that can seriously harm our physical and psychological well-being. Depending on how you look at it, then, meditating could either bring you closer to Nirvana or help you stay physically and mentally healthy.

But how much can we really benefit from taking time out to meditate, and is it worth it?

What do we even mean by “meditation”?

When most people hear the word “meditation”, they probably imagine the ultra-flexible, robed stereotype sitting in the lotus position and “ohm”-ing themselves into some sort of spiritual trance. However, in reality the term doesn’t refer to any particular practice, but denotes a wide variety of techniques that are designed to integrate the mind and body while simultaneously calming both. Some of these methods involve sitting in complete silence and simply observing one’s thoughts and feelings; others include the repetition of mantras, and many require focusing attention on the breath.

In recent years, the term “mindfulness” has come to denote the non-distracted, non-judgmental state of mind associated with meditation. Stripping away the religious and mystical aspects, clinical psychologists offer mindfulness meditation as a practical mental health exercise for patients experiencing certain forms of emotional distress.

The point of meditation, therefore, is to calm the monkey mind and settle one’s thoughts.

“Mindfulness is awareness of the present moment,” Dr Neda Gould, director of the Mindfulness Program at Johns Hopkins Medicine, told IFLScience. “In mindfulness meditation, we are setting time aside to focus on a specific ‘anchor’ of the present moment. This is often the breath. A common thread across meditations is the focus on an anchor to the present moment. The anchor can be different but the process is similar.”

Dr Gould’s anchor analogy builds upon the traditional Buddhist depiction of the mind as a “monkey” that refuses to sit still, disobediently swinging from branch to branch with zero chill. The point of meditation, therefore, is to calm the monkey mind and settle one’s thoughts.

If that all sounds a bit metaphorical, bear in mind that focusing on the rise and fall of the breath helps to regulate the release of noradrenaline, a “fight-or-flight” neurotransmitter that plays a role in attention and stress. Accordingly, meditation techniques that involve observing the breath have been linked to heightened awareness, sharper focus, and a general relaxation of the nervous system.

Searching for a mechanism underlying these positive effects, one study concluded that “cultivating all aspects of attention through mindfulness meditation leads to greater psychological well-being through decreased ruminative processes.” In other words, anchoring that monkey may help to keep the mind from straying into dark territories, allowing meditators to stay present and think positively.

What happens when you catch the monkey?

“At an individual level, the benefits of meditation can vary but often individuals report positive emotional and physical shifts following regular meditation practice,” said Gould. “The research shows significant improvements emotionally (e.g., decreased depression and anxiety) and physically (e.g., improvements in pain).”

While it’s true that many studies have highlighted the mental and bodily benefits of meditating, there is a lot of conflicting data, and much of the research on this topic is of a low quality. Very few studies on meditation have followed up with participants for more than a few months, and even those that meet higher scientific standards have struggled to reach a consensus on the effects of meditation.

In 2014, Gould and her colleagues conducted a systematic review of 47 studies which revealed “moderate evidence of improved anxiety, depression and pain and low evidence of improved stress/distress and mental health-related quality of life” among participants in mindfulness meditation programs. Other studies, meanwhile, have produced more sensational results, including a review from 2018 that found mindfulness meditation to be as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressant medications for patients with certain mental health disorders.

Subscribe to our newsletter and get every issue of CURIOUS delivered to your inbox free each month.

 Navigating the various claims made about meditation can be tricky, and it seems fair to say that scientists still aren’t entirely certain how beneficial it is. Part of the problem is that participants in these studies vary quite drastically in their baseline mental health and commitment to meditation. Experienced meditators, for instance, are likely to have certain traits that novices lack, which means clinical outcomes tend to differ radically between cohorts.


One interesting study, involving complete beginners, found that meditating for just 13 minutes a day for eight weeks “decreased negative mood state and enhanced attention, working memory, and recognition memory as well as decreased state anxiety scores.” According to the researchers, this finding “suggests that even relatively short daily meditation practice can have similar behavioral effects as longer duration and higher-intensity meditation practices.”

Encouraging as this conclusion may be, however, these findings need to be replicated in multiple cohorts before they can be taken seriously. And when it comes to studies on meditation, replication seems to be particularly challenging.

The mind-body connection

As our scientific understanding of the mind-body connection deepens, reasons to suspect a physical advantage are beginning to appear.

If the psychological benefits of meditation are hard to quantify, the physical gains are even more challenging to pin down. Despite claims about reductions in chronic pain and improvements in blood pressure, high-quality studies supporting these assertions are extremely few and far-between.

However, as our scientific understanding of the mind-body connection deepens, reasons to suspect a physical advantage are beginning to appear. For example, one large review found a link between meditation and the expression of genes that regulate the production of pro-inflammatory compounds called cytokines. Released in response to stress, cytokines have been linked to cellular aging and cancer, so it’s possible that meditation may help to buffer the molecular consequences of stress.


Another fascinating study involving 37 Tibetan Buddhist monks found that the devotees had higher concentrations of beneficial gut bacteria than non-meditators from the same region. Though full of limitations, this research adds weight to the notion of a gut-brain axis and suggests that mental health and the microbiome may be interlinked.

Can you re-wire your brain?

“There is fascinating research on the changes that happen in the brain following regular meditation practice, including decreased activity in the areas of the brain involved in the stress response, and increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in executive functioning tasks,” said Gould.

Indeed, one study found that different types of meditation can alter the structure of the brain in different ways, with mindfulness meditation linked to increased thickness within regions associated with attention and cognition, while compassion-based meditation techniques led to increases in a region associated with emotional regulation. Further research has highlighted a connection between meditation and changes within the right precuneus, a brain region that is linked to happiness.

As wonderful as all this sounds, though, it will probably come as no surprise to learn that these findings are yet to be confirmed in large-scale clinical trials. Notably, one much-hyped study found increased functional connectivity within key brain networks after just eight weeks of meditation, yet researchers were unable to replicate these findings in a larger cohort of participants.


To borrow one final Buddhist analogy, then, meditation is sometimes likened to sitting beside a muddy stream, patiently waiting for the debris to settle and the water to become clear. From a scientific perspective, the effects of meditation seem as clear as mud, so perhaps the best thing to do is to just sit patiently, observe the breath, and try and catch that monkey.

CURIOUS magazine is a digital magazine from IFLScience featuring interviews, experts, deep dives, fun facts, news, book excerpts, and much more. Issue 14 is out now.


  • tag
  • brain,

  • psychology,

  • meditation,

  • neuroscience