The most sought-after skill of our time might just be the ability to power down. We're all bombarded by endless content and blinking screens so much so that our brains have been conditioned to seek constant stimulation. Therefore to unwind, to focus on nothing is incredibly important when it comes to relieving stress and achieving, among other things, solid sleep. And according to Dr. Rebecca Robbins, co-author of “Sleep for Success!” and a postdoctoral fellow at the NYU School of Medicine, one of the most intriguing areas of research currently emerging is sleep’s relationship with meditation, the art of powering down.
“It’s fascinating,” says Robbins. “We’re finding that meditation is a tremendously therapeutic procedure for patients of all kinds in hospital settings.”
So how exactly are they connected? We chatted with Robbins about some of the research currently available, as well as her tips for beginners to start meditating toward a better sleep.
Has meditation helped you become a better sleeper?
I’ve been in sleep medicine for ten years, but I couldn’t get good sleep until I developed a meditation practice.
Why do you think that is?
Broadly speaking, meditation and sleep are in kind of the same area of rest and recovery and regeneration. There’s a little bit of a misconception in our country and in a lot of capitalistic, go-go, 24/7 societies that we can pull from our sleep and add more time to our days. But all the evidence is really pointing to the fact that we can’t wave a wand and cut sleep short and have no impact.
So, meditation is a really great part of a healthy sleep routine. And here’s the dirty secret: If you get good at meditating, you need less sleep at night. Meditation actually offers some of the similar benefits — cognitively and physically — from a recovery and a regeneration standpoint as stage-IV deep sleep. The patterns of brain activity are similar when we connect patients to functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) machines.
So, are you saying that meditation can substitute sleep? And if so, how much?
We’re not sure how much meditation is needed to substitute sleep, but we know that there is a connection there, and we know that those with an active meditation practice do sleep, on average, a bit less than those who do not meditate.
It’s fascinating what happens. We’re seeing that meditation is a way to kind of not just get the benefits of sleep, but consolidate them. It’s a really fabulous practice, and I encourage my patients I interact with to develop the meditation practice.
What’s the most interesting research you’ve uncovered regarding sleep and meditation?
We had people who have never meditated before come into the lab and then we taught them a meditation practice. Afterward, these individuals had a dramatic increase in what we call “gray matter” in their brains. Gray matter is kind of like fresh brain matter to create a landing path for more connections.
So, people who have never had a meditation practice developed the meditation skills and then practiced for two to four weeks. It dramatically increased the amount of gray matter in their brains. This was a tremendous healing practice. It’s not only good for your sleep, but it contributes to a healthy brain.
What are some tips you have for people to start meditation?
If you’re brand new, one thing to remember is we’re all bad at it. Most people come to me and say, “Oh, I can’t do that. I can’t meditate.” The whole idea is it’s a practice of calming the mind, and we’re all fundamentally bad at it. So acknowledge that, and use it as a practice to get better with each time.
Anything else people need to remember?
All meditation is simply not thinking. It's being and breathing. It's not letting worries seep in and bother you.