The Brain Enhancing Effects of Meditation
Meditation is no longer a practice that is associated with Eastern philosophies and beliefs. If you still hold this view of meditation let me stop you right there. This isn’t an article telling you to love others, find compassion, and live as one with the earth. These are all noble pursuits, sure, but you don’t need to hold these ideals to reap the benefits of meditation.
If you’re not convinced, then consider this. Meditation has more concrete evidence on it’s side than that of popular brain training apps or games. Quite a bit more, in fact.
One of the most surprising findings in recent research is the cognitive benefits of meditation. Things like attention and memory which are the underlying brain abilities that affect your day to day thinking, learning, and problem solving. These abilities translate to real world success and improvement of your quality of life.
Don’t let preconceived notions blind you. Let us look to the scientific evidence. Yes, meditation can be a spiritual thing for some people, but it doesn’t have to be. So let’s take a look at the amazing cognitive benefits of mediation.
It Increases Executive Function
Your executive functions are some of the most important skills you have as a person. Long term planning, motivation, organizing, inhibition, and self control are all considered parts of your executive functions. It’s what makes you function as a normal person in society and what you use to pursue your goals and dreams. Important? Absolutely.
A study of mindfulness based stress reduction – known as MBSR for short – looked at that practice of meditation to see if it had any effect on our higher order thinking abilities. After 8 weeks of the program, the researchers found small, but significant measures in executive functions. Also, the noted that participants improved more on complex tasks of executive function than compared to simpler tasks.
It Improves Attention
Of the many different findings and benefits of meditation, the improvement of attention is one of the most consistent. This has been found in various different groups – from school children to older populations. It could arguably be one of the most efficient and cost effective methods to increase your focus and concentration on the tasks that you put your mind to.
Published research in 2013 took a look at two different methods of meditation and compared it against a relaxation group. All participants were normal healthy adults. One group used an “open monitoring” meditation technique, a second practiced “focused attention” meditation, and the third group performed relaxation techniques.
The researchers also had participants record their mood during testing. Mood has been known to affect your ability to concentrate, and they wanted to make sure this wasn’t the underlying cause. The results showed improved changes in attention for both the meditation groups, but not the relaxation group. And they noticed these improvements even when there was no change in mood.
It Improves Working Memory
Working memory is a part of your executive functions. It’s closely related to short term memory – but some researchers do happen to make a slight distinction. It’s basically the amount of information you can hold in your mind to be manipulated.
The authors of one study found that when undergraduates had just short 4 days of practice with meditation, that cognitive skills showed signs of improvement. They saw marked improvements in not only the students attention, but also in their working memory.
It Reduces Cognitive Rigidity
Sometimes past experience can block the way to new and innovative ideas. The habits, beliefs, or attitudes developed from personal experiences have been known to make discovery of obvious solutions difficult. We may fail to consider alternative ideas and solutions. This could be a problems, especially when it’s our job to do so. Not only in academic settings, but in professional settings such as clinics.
Researchers used two experiments to see if meditation might have an effect on people’s adaptive thinking. To see if it could help overcome previous experience or rigidity. In two separate experiments, the authors of the study found that participants who meditated were more likely to see the simple novel solution to the tests, than those who didn’t meditate.
Being able to control yourself is a key ability in leading a successful life. Want to develop some healthy habits? Or maybe just rid yourself of a bad habit? You’re going to rely heavily on your ability to resist temptation and motivate yourself to act.
A recent review of self regulation was published in 2013. Researchers had previously noted increase in self control after only 5 days of meditation practices. In their review, though, they noted that young children, adults over 65, and college students saw improved control through practices of meditation.
They have also observed strong evidence using brain imagine technologies. Not only are there strong activation areas related to self control, but there is improved brain connectivity in these areas. The physical changes in the brain which could have many clinical applications for substance abuse and other disorders.
So it appears that healthy people across all ages can improve their self control through meditation.
And if you find yourself needing just a bit more of willpower, meditation has been found to be a quick boost when you need it most. A study showed that when participants found themselves in a willpower depleted state, that a quick bout of meditation gave them extra self control.
It Boosts Your Creativity
Creativity is seen as one of the most important skills in both the business and scientific worlds. Oddly enough, it’s not part of a normal student’s class schedule. Some have even argued that school curriculum may be threatening the creativity of students. In today’s world, finding innovative and useful solutions to problems is paramount. And it seems meditation may give you some help in that regard.
A study took 40 Chinese undergraduates and had them meditate for 30 minutes a day for 7 days. The were compared against another group that was trained in relaxation training for the same amounts of time. Even in this short bout of meditation, the students were able to raise there scores on a test of creative thinking. And they did so more than their counterparts who were trained to simply relax.
You may be interested to know that different methods of creativity might be affected by different methods in meditation. There is divergent thinking – generating many different ideas, and there is convergent thinking – or arriving at a single unique solution. Another study of meditation has been shown to foster both types of thinking. A method known as open monitoring for creating many ideas, and the other method is named focused attention – for convergent.
It May Slow Cognitive Decline
One review did a meta-analysis – or a review of multiple research findings. Their overall conclusion, after reviewing 12 papers, stated that the current evidence suggests that meditation could very well slow age related cognitive decline. The strongest evidence was for attention, with various other factors showing evidence as well.
Naturally, the scientists said further studies are needed. Which makes sense. This line of research is still new, so gathering more evidence is smart. Various forms of meditation were found in the papers, which may have different effects on the overall results.
It Can Slow the Decline of Intelligence
I admit that this is related to cognitive decline, but I think it warrants a special mention. Fluid intelligence is a key measure of your cognitive abilities. It is also a more comprehensive measure of cognitive power, than just individual abilities.
One study was interested in fluid intelligence and the mindfulness practices in meditation and yoga. The researchers were also very careful. They made sure to match for variables such as age, exercise activity, level of education, and engagement in cognitive activities to make sure results were accurate.
What they found was that compared to a control group, the people who practiced mindfulness had a slower decline of their fluid intelligence. The authors of the study also noticed that the minds of these practitioners had better brain connectivity and resilience.
It Improves Your Cognitive Flexibility
Your cognitive flexibility gives you the ability to think about different concepts at the same time. Or the ability to switch between different concepts. It’s also been described as the ability to adapt your thinking to new rules or new information in a given situation. This skill has both real world as studies have shown that it is an important component of learning.
When researchers studied those who meditated on a test of cognitive flexibility, they saw that the participants were better able to block automatic thinking processes. They were also better at suppressing information in the flexibility test than those participants who did not practice meditation. In short, there was a strong link between meditation and cognitive flexibility. They also observed a strong link with – no surprise here – attention.
The two meditation skills that were most likely responsible for this? The skills of “acting with awareness” and “observing”.
Many Other Benefits
These are actually just a few of the benefits of meditation. There are quite a few more, but this does outline the cognitive enhancing effects that meditation can bring.
So if you’re looking for ways to get a mental edge in your personal or professional life, just remember one thing:
Image credit: Moyan Brenn
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