Herbert Benson's research at Harvard in the early 1970s led the way. Benson's impeccable credentials and university affiliation, along with the world-class quality of his work, led to publication of breakthrough articles on meditation in the Scientific American and the American Journal of Physiology. His book, The Relaxation Response topped the best seller lists in the mid-1970s, and is still widely read. In The Relaxation Response, Benson concluded, based on his research, that meditation acted as an antidote to stress. The body's physical response under stress is well known; when a real or imagined threat is present, the human nervous system activates the "fight-or-flight" mechanism. The activity of the sympathetic portion of the nervous system increases, causing an increased heart beat, increased respiratory rate, elevation of blood pressure, and increase in oxygen consumption. This fight-or-flight response has a purpose. If you need to run quickly to escape an attack by a wild animal or need increased strength to battle an invader, you will be better equipped to do so if the fight-or-flight mechanism is turned up to maximum intensity. But this mechanism functions best when used occasionally, for brief periods only. If activated repeatedly, the effects are harmful and potentially disastrous. It is not uncommon for people in modern societies to maintain high stress levels most of the time. The current epidemic of hypertension and heart disease in the Western world is in part a direct result. The effects of meditation, Benson demonstrated, are essentially the opposite of the fight-or-flight response. Benson's research showed that meditation: • Decreases the heart rate
• Decreases the respiratory rate
• Decreases blood pressure in people who have normal or mildly elevated blood pressure • Decreases oxygen consumption
These basic findings have been replicated by so many subsequent studies that they are not in dispute. They also established once and for all that meditation is physiologically distinct from sleep. In sleep, oxygen consumption drops about 8 percent below the...