Brain research imaging studies conducted a few years ago have demonstrated that meditation can cause significant improvements in sections related to concentration. Conventional wisdom has led to the notion that a considerable amount of time and training was involved in order to achieve this effect. This perceived time requirement has been a barrier for many desiring to meditate.
Fortunately, a new study determined that the benefits can be attained in a relatively short period of time. Current research now demonstrates that the mind can be trained much faster than ever previously thought possible.
Psychologists investigating the effects mindfulness meditation found that people can experience an improvement of cognitive (thinking) functions after only four days of meditating for 20 minutes each day!
The study was conducted by Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D. at Wake Forest University. He said, "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.” The study was conducted at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he was a doctoral student.
"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."
Sixty three student volunteers participated, with 49 completing the study. They were randomly assigned to two groups. One received the mindfulness meditation training, while the second listened for 20 minutes a day to a book that was read out loud.
Before and after the reading and meditation exercises, the participants were measured using a variety of tests that assessed their mood and brain function.
The two groups were similar in these measurements at the beginning of the study. They also both experienced improved mood, but the meditation participants only experienced cognitive functioning improvement.
The meditation group scored consistently higher averages than the reading/listening group on all the cognitive tests. "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."
Of greatest note was the difference in their response to a computer test. The meditation-trained group averaged approximately 10 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. The meditators were directed to relax, 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 compares the four day training to a form 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."
The study was published in the April 2 issue of Consciousness and Cognition. The research was presented at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society's annual meeting in Montreal, April 17-20.
Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and Cognition, 2010; DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2010.03.014