July 28, 2011 — -- A quiet explosion of new research indicating that meditation can physically change the brain in astonishing ways has started to push into mainstream.
Several studies suggest that these changes through meditation can make you happier, less stressed -- even nicer to other people. It can help you control your eating habits and even reduce chronic pain, all the while without taking prescription medication.
Meditation is an intimate and intense exercise that can be done solo or in a group, and one study showed that 20 million Americans say they practice meditation. It has been used to help treat addictions, to clear psoriasis and even to treat men with impotence.
The U.S. Marines are testing meditation to see if it makes more focused, effective warriors. Corporate executives at Google, General Mills, Target and Aetna Insurance, as well as students in some of the nation's classrooms have used meditation.
Various celebrities also are known meditators, including shock jock Howard Stern, actors Richard Gere, Goldie Hawn and Heather Graham, and Rivers Cuomo, the lead singer of the band Weezer.
In one study, a research team from Massachusetts General Hospital looked at the brain scans of 16 people before and after they participated in an eight-week course in mindfulness meditation. The study, published in the January issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, concluded that after completing the course, parts of the participants' brains associated with compassion and self-awareness grew, and parts associated with stress shrank.
Recently, the Dalai Lama granted permission for his monks, who are master mediators, to have their brains studied at the University of Wisconsin, one of the most high-tech brain labs in the world.
Richie Davidson, a PhD at the university, and his colleagues, led the study and said they were amazed by what they found in the monks' brain activity read-outs. During meditation, electroencephalogram patterns increased and remains higher than the initial baseline taken from a non-meditative state.
But you don't have to be a monk to benefit from meditation, which is now gaining acceptance in the field of medicine.
Physicians have increasingly started prescribing meditation instead of pills to benefit their patients. A Harvard Medical School report released in May found that more than 6 million Americans had been recommended meditation and other mind-body therapies by conventional health care providers.
Perhaps the most mind-bending potential benefit of meditation is that it will actually make practitioners nicer. Chuck Raison, a professor at Emory University, conducted a meditation study in which he hooked up microphones to participants who had been taught basic meditation and those who hadn't. He then recorded them at random over a period of time. Raison found that these newly-trained mediators used less harsh language than people who had no meditation experience.
"They were more empathic with people," Raison said. "They were spending more time with other people. They laugh more, you know, all those things. They didn't use the word 'I' as much. They use the word 'we' more."
However, even the Dalai Lama admitted that meditation is not the silver bullet cure-all for every ailment or emotion.
"Occasionally, [I] lose my temper," he said. "If someone is never lose temper then perhaps that may come from outer space, real strange."
The Dalai Lama also cautioned that meditation takes patience, so new mediators should not expect immediate results.
"The enlightenment not depend on rank," he said, laughing. "It depends on practice."
Some scientists believe that in a generation, Americans will see meditation as being as essential to maintaining a healthy lifestyle as diet and exercise.
ABC News' Maggy Patrick and Lauren Effron contributed to this report.