Meditation for health and hearing

The medical profession tends to treat our ailments in isolation, which is why there are so many specialisations in medicine. However, generally, things don’t go wrong with parts of our body in isolation. The ears are no exception. Hearing depends on blood flow, healthy nerves, and general wellbeing.

Studies show that meditation can reduce the production of adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones), and increase the flow of blood within the ears. That blood flow is essential to maintaining hearing health.

Overproduction of stress hormones can reduce blood circulation in the inner ear and prolonged exposure to these fight or flight chemicals creates inflammation, which can cause parts of the body to deteriorate. So, it’s no surprise that stress can influence the delicate parts within the ears. This will not only cause hearing loss over time, in rare cases, sudden hearing loss can occur if circulation in that region stops completely.

It’s understandable therefore that meditation, which reduces stress, also decreases these deteriorating effects. As it turns out, according to research conducted by Sara Lazar, neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital, meditation goes a step further and can be beneficial to the primary hearing centres of the brain. According to a meta-analysis of several published studies,

“Those who meditated have an increased thickness of grey matter in parts of the brain responsible for attention compared to those who do not meditate.”

The parts of the brain associated with memory and recognising language, are also involved in processing sensory information including hearing, so the increase in grey matter suggests that meditation enhances the ability to pay attention, as well as the way the brain codes and stores auditory information.

In one study examining long term meditators vs a control group, they found long-term meditators have an increased amount of grey matter in the insula and sensory regions, which is part of the auditory and sensory cortex. They also discovered increased grey matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with higher level cognitive skills and the daily working memory.

As we age, the cortex shrinks so remembering and figuring things out can be more challenging. What researchers discovered in 50-year-old meditators, was that the prefrontal cortex had the same amount of grey matter as 25-year-olds.

A second study observed people who’d never meditated before. A group who was put through an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program had increased brain volume after just eight weeks.

Separate to the physiological benefits to the auditory system, meditation has been shown to increase people’s ability to feel compassion and empathy. Combined with attentional improvements, it follows that you may well become a better listener. How can that not be a good thing?

Meditation is also a great benefit in relation to tinnitus because it can improve your ability to selectively switch attention away from the annoying sounds as you go about your day. Conversely during meditation sessions, it can be helpful to focus on the tinnitus sound because then you may start to associate it with the positive experience of relaxation and calm. This new, more peaceful

association may slowly replace the old disturbing and stressful one. Alternatively, it might be helpful to play relaxing sounds or music during meditation sessions if you find the tinnitus particularly distracting.

A useful resource for starting out or complementing an existing practice is a smartphone app called ‘Waking Up’ developed by Neuroscientist & Philosopher Sam Harris. You can find his website via the following link, the app is available as a free trial, I can highly recommend his 21-day introductory course, just 10 minutes a day. Sam’s Waking Up app is quite comprehensive; he has also written a fascinating book by the same name.

If I could recommend one habit to anyone I care about, it would be to develop the habit of meditating. What have you got to lose?