Brief Meditative Exercise Helps Cognition
ScienceDaily (Apr. 19, 2010) Some of us need
regular amounts of coffee or other chemical
enhancers to make us cognitively sharper. A newly
published study suggests perhaps a brief bit of
meditation would prepare us just as well.
While past research using neuroimaging technology
has shown that meditation techniques can promote
significant changes in brain areas associated with
concentration, it has always been assumed that
extensive training was required to achieve this
effect. Though many people would like to boost their
cognitive abilities, the monk-like discipline
required seems like a daunting time commitment
and financial cost for this benefit.
Surprisingly, the benefits may be achievable even
without all the work. Though it sounds almost like
an advertisement for a "miracle" weight-loss product,
new research now suggests that the mind may be
easier to cognitively train than we previously
believed. Psychologists studying the effects of
a meditation technique known as "mindfulness "
found that meditation-trained participants showed
a significant improvement in their critical cognitive
skills (and performed significantly higher in
cognitive tests than a control group) after only
four days of training for only 20 minutes each day.
"In the behavioral test results, what we are seeing
is something that is somewhat comparable to results
that have been documented after far more extensive
training," said Fadel Zeidan, a post-doctoral
researcher at Wake Forest University School of Medicine,
and a former doctoral student at the University of
North Carolina at Charlotte, where the research was conducted.
"Simply stated, the profound improvements that we
found after just 4 days of meditation training- are
really surprising," Zeidan noted. "It goes to show
that the mind is, in fact, easily changeable and
highly influenced, especially by meditation."
The study appears in the April 2 issue of Consciousness
and Cognition. Zeidan's co-authors are Susan K. Johnson,
Zhanna David and Paula Goolkasian from the Department
of Psychology at UNC Charlotte, and Bruce J. Diamond
from William Patterson University. The research was
also part of Zeidan's doctoral dissertation. The
research will also be presented at the Cognitive
Neuroscience Society's annual meeting in Montreal, April 17-20.
The experiment involved 63 student volunteers, 49
of whom completed the experiment. Participants were
randomly assigned in approximately equivalent numbers
to one of two groups, one of which received the
meditation training while the other group listened
for equivalent periods of time to a book (J.R.R.
Tolkein's The Hobbit) being read aloud.
Prior to and following the meditation and reading
sessions, the participants were subjected to a broad
battery of behavioral tests assessing mood, memory,
visual attention, attention processing, and vigilance.
Both groups performed equally on all measures at the
beginning of the experiment. Both groups also improved
following the meditation and reading experiences in
measures of mood, but only the group that received
the meditation training improved significantly in
the cognitive measures. The meditation group scored
consistently higher averages than the reading/listening
group on all the cognitive tests and as much as ten
times better on one challenging test that involved
sustaining the ability to focus, while holding other
information in mind.
"The meditation group did especially better on all
the cognitive tests that were timed," Zeidan noted.
"In tasks where participants had to process information
under time constraints causing stress, the group briefly
trained in mindfulness performed significantly better."
Particularly of note were the differing results on
a "computer adaptive n-back task," where participants
would have to correctly remember if a stimulus had been
shown two steps earlier in a sequence. If the participant
got the answer right, the computer would react by
increasing the speed of the subsequent stimulus, further
increasing the difficulty of the task. The meditation-trained
group averaged aproximately10 consecutive correct answers,
while the listening group averaged approximately one.
"Findings like these suggest that meditation's benefits
may not require extensive training to be realized, and
that meditation's first benefits may be associated with
increasing the ability to sustain attention," Zeidan said.
"Further study is warranted," he stressed, noting
that brain imaging studies would be helpful in confirming
the brain changes that the behavioral tests seem to
indicate, "but this seems to be strong evidence for the
idea that we may be able to modify our own minds to
improve our cognitive processing -- most importantly
in the ability to sustain attention and vigilance --
within a week's time."
The meditation training involved in the study was an abbreviated "mindfulness" training regime modeled on
basic "Shamatha skills" from a Buddhist meditation
tradition, conducted by a trained facilitator. As
described in the paper, "participants were instructed
to relax, with their eyes closed, and to simply focus
on the flow of their breath occurring at the tip of
their nose. If a random thought arose, they were
told to passively notice and acknowledge the thought
and to simply let 'it' go, by bringing the attention
back to the sensations of the breath." Subsequent training
built on this basic model, teaching physical awareness,
focus, and mindfulness with regard to distraction.
Zeidan likens the brief training the participants
received to a kind of mental calisthenics that prepared
their minds for cognitive activity.
"The simple process of focusing on the breath in
a relaxed manner, in a way that teaches you to regulate
your emotions by raising one's awareness of mental
processes as they're happening is like working out
a bicep, but you are doing it to your brain. Mindfulness
meditation teaches you to release sensory events
that would easily distract, whether it is your own
thoughts or an external noise, in an emotion-regulating
fashion. This can lead to better, more efficient
performance on the intended task."
"This kind of training seems to prepare the mind
for activity, but it's not necessarily permanent,"
Zeidan cautions. "This doesn't mean that you meditate
for four days and you're done -- you need to keep practicing."
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