Resting in silence is associated with a plethora of health benefits. But how exactly does breathing through your nose and letting go of the anxiety you’re so worried about doing it for good? How is there proof that meditation is also good for our bodies?
Well, there are lots of studies. The latest has a team of Swedish scientists from Karolinska Institutet comparing light meditation and “masking activities” in college-aged adults. Masking activities are games, like chess or a guided game program, on your phone or computer, where you’re guessing words that will be shown on the screen. Light meditation is still deep meditative type activity, like sitting in silence for a few minutes each day. The researchers wanted to see how long the masking/light meditation effects lasted once it was reversed.
Habitual repetition of certain pre-set behaviors such as counting money, shopping, or kneading bread
Repeatedly watching the coder during training
Responding in response to special instructions
Repeatedly ignoring the preferences of the trainer, such as the pattern of voice or the avatar
Repeatedly downloading the game until it boots up and maintains the desired state
The researchers used 112 students from six universities (mainly in Scandinavia) who went through eight trials of light meditation or masking activities in each trial, but reversed the behavior when they could. In one trial, they gave the students a fidgety puppet that squeaked when they touched it. In the next, they gave them a “deceptive” puppet that squeaked under the students’ touch, and the third, in which they used irritating tunes to stop students from touching the strange swarthy puppet, which was really, really distracting.
Other than the obvious measures: cortisol, which is a stress hormone, and saliva, saliva contains two things that can measure meditation’s effect on the body: alpha and beta nociceptors. Alpha nociceptors are compounds in the saliva that respond to sunlight, whereas beta nociceptors are composed of proteins which bind to them. According to the Swedish study, beta nociceptors in the saliva fell for an average of 0.08 µg/mL while alpha nociceptors remained basically the same.
“I do wonder whether the beta nociceptors become artificially produced in the body,” lead researcher Sari Boordjonsson says. “But I don’t know whether the beta nociceptors are activated by the yogic inhale or the relaxing application of mind that follows it.” “There seems to be a clear link with myo and beta nociceptors. You might as well wear a mask instead of gentle breathing.”
Their initial guess that beta nociceptors drop because the blood is getting that kind of cushioning is now out, at least in their experiment. The changes they observed could happen from a different cause as well.
“Not all alpha nociceptors produce beta nociceptors,” Boordjonsson says. “Alpha nociceptors came in with a lag of around one hour after exposure to quiet meditation; that lag decreased considerably after 18 hours. Beta nociceptors produced by alpha nociceptors were significant and lasted for about half of the 24 hours. What those nociceptors do probably creates a gel between alpha nociceptors and beta nociceptors.”
But it’s the beta nociceptors that “are really a central part of the brain activation and consequent neurobiological activity,” Boordjonsson says.