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Brief Meditative Exercise Helps Cognition

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    Brief Meditative Exercise Helps Cognition ScienceDaily (Apr. 19, 2010) — Some of us need regular amounts of coffee or other chemical enhancers to make us
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      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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