Meditation helped Thai football boys survive in cave, explained
Meditation reduces anxiety and quietens the mind.
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The 12 Thai boys and their football coach who were trapped in a cave in Thailand took to meditation to survive, according to their family members.
One of the boys’ mother said the team were meditating when they were found by two British divers after nine days of being in darkness with little supplies and having no idea if they would survive.
The mother said when she saw the video of the team’s discovery: “Look at how calm they were sitting there waiting. No one was crying or anything. It was astonishing.”
As more news came out of Thailand, it turns out the coach, Ekkapol Chanthawong, had trained as a Buddhist monk for 12 years.
“He could meditate up to an hour,” Ekkapol’s aunt, Tham Chanthawong, said. “It has definitely helped him and probably helps the boys to stay calm.”
Spotlight on meditation
This is one of the rare occasions the spotlight has been shone on meditation and its purported benefits on the human body.
Many fascinating claims regarding meditation have been made over the years, such as lowering one’s heartbeat to less than 30 beats a minute, or being in a state of intense meditation that one does not need to consume food or even feel how hot or cold the external environment is.
What is known though is that Buddhist meditation has been around for 2,600 years, since it was taught by the Buddha as a tool to achieve clarity, peace of mind, and ultimately, liberation from suffering.
Tracking what meditation can do
Over the last few years, mindfulness meditation has been shown to produce benefits in clinical settings.
It can reduce anxiety, depression, and even pain.
Properly-conducted studies involving randomised control trials on meditation and mental health have been few though.
But a 2014 meta analysis by Johns Hopkins researchers found that meditation can help treat depression, anxiety, and pain in adults.
The effects are comparable to taking medication. But with meditation, there are no side effects.
And to a lesser degree, meditation can reduce the toll of psychological distress, the review found.
The research on kids is even more sparse, and are fairly preliminary. But mindfulness meditation programmes have been introduced in schools as part of curriculum.
What mediation does to the body?
Preserve your brain
People who have practised meditation for long periods of time, say, 20 years, have better-preserved brains.
This means older meditators still experience loss of volume in the brain as they age, but they retain more grey matter throughout the brain as compared to non-meditators.
The more grey matter as one ages, the better.
Quietens “monkey mind”
Mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the default mode network (DMN).
This is the brain network responsible for mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts, a.k.a., “monkey mind”.
This brain network is active when we’re not thinking about anything in particular.
And a mind that wanders is typically associated with being less happy and constantly ruminating. It is worrying about the past and future.
Meditation helps people dial the “monkey mind” down, through its quieting effect on the DMN.
And for people who mediate, the wandering mind snaps out of that phase more easily, instead of sucking one in.
Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness. One technique in meditation is to draw one’s focus on one’s own breathing.
This is why it is called mindfulness: Instead of letting automatic body functions carry out as second nature, the “monkey mind” can be drawn to its basic function.
Mindfulness meditation has the ability to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and pain.
The effect size is equivalent to taking anti-depressants, according to studies.
Changes subjective perception
Just two months of meditation is shown to be capable of increasing cortical thickness in the hippocampus.
This brain region governs learning and memory, and in certain areas of the brain that regulate emotion and self-referential processing.
There were also decreases in brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress.
When queried, subjects who have practised meditation experience decreased levels of stress, which is a change in subjective perception and feelings — with accompanying changes in the physical brain.
This leads to improved psychological well-being, as a result of changes in brain areas linked to mood and arousal.
Improves concentration and attention
Meditation training has been shown to help focus and memory during verbal reasoning in some standardised tests.
This is a result of improvements in concentration and attention, where cognitive acts can be performed and shown to help tasks that require cognitive skills.
This also has effects on people’s sense of self-control, and can improve the chances of people with addictions kicking the habit, by overcoming the cravings.
How to try meditation
The best explanation of meditation can be found in this 107-second video, where a Buddhist monk describes what meditation ought to be like.
For novices starting out on meditation, the literature on the subject is vast and there are many misconceptions regarding how meditation should be carried out, and to what extent (i.e. how long should one meditate for in a day etc.).
For practical advice, this is what one can do by oneself, without paying for classes or joining a group:
1. The purpose of meditation is to quieten the “monkey mind”. So, people can pick a fixed time during the day to meditate daily, e.g. 15 minutes before getting ready for work each morning.
2. The “monkey mind” is what many people would recognise as the voice in their heads, or the voice people typically have conversations with when they talk to themselves internally.
3. By focusing on one aspect, such as one’s own breathing, there are spaces of time where the mind suddenly finds itself quietened down. However, the chatter comes back relatively quickly for novice meditators, so there is a constant need to consciously draw oneself back to the quietened down state.
4. Long-time practitioners of meditation are able to constantly pull the focus back on their own breathing, or using external sources of focus to hold one’s attention, such as a candle flame (real or an imaginary one etched in the mind).
5. For people starting out on meditation, the biggest challenges are usually falling asleep from staying still during meditation, and the constant need to re-focus by pulling one’s attention to the breathing or candle flame, as one is prone to get distracted. This is actually very common.
6. With more meditation, the periods of no-chatter or a quietened “monkey mind” will be gradually extended.