A few years ago when going through a period in my life that was proving to be somewhat stressful, I enrolled in a six-week meditation course. And I have to say it was hugely beneficial. Having to mentally and physically stop for that one brief hour each week, was very calming and it did help me cope. I can’t say it was easy either. Being a person always on the go, never allowing myself the luxury to step back and stop the endless mind-chatter was quite a challenge and it took a while to get the hang of it. But then I would start to look forward to that time, and little by little I did learn how to focus on the breath, to be more “present” and just take in the sounds around me with out allowing my thoughts to rudely intrude and distract. I could actually just acknowledge them and let them float off somewhere else.
Whilst there of a lot of awareness of the beneficial physiological changes associated with meditation for some time, it has only been over the last few years that scientific studies have been able to show more of what is going on in the brain when we meditate and the promise that further research may have, for future brain health benefits.
The brain itself actually undergoes physical change in response to meditation. A study by Sara Lazar, research scientist from the Massachusetts Hospital Boston showed that regular meditation causes thickening of the cerebral cortex in those areas of the brain associated with decision-making, attention and memory.
The question arising from her study is: Would regular meditation slow the natural thinning of the cortex that occurs with age?
The cortex is associated with higher brain function. So, can meditation be shown to increase attention span, sharpen focus and improve memory?
The proponents of meditation say it can:
In 2007 a study by Amishi Jha and Michael Baine at Penn’s Stress Management Program at the University of Pennsylvania looked at how meditation affected the three separate components of paying attention ie:
• The ability to prioritise and manage tasks and goals. • The ability to voluntarily focus on specific information. • The ability to stay alert to the environment
They had two groups. The first group was new to meditation and undertook an 8 week course, which included 30 minutes daily meditation. The second group was experienced in meditation and went on a full time one-month retreat. Both groups underwent computer-based tests on response speeds and accuracy and both groups showed improved performance in attention and ability to focus. The experienced group did better overall but the new group demonstrated significant improvements over just a course of weeks.
The implications here suggested it would be worthwhile teaching employees to meditate, because even 30 minutes a day produced improved attention and focus.
Attention is the key to learning. So it would appear that meditation allows you to improve your attention and hence learning capacity.
The Deutsche Bank, Google and Hughes Aircraft now offer meditation classes for their workers because of the perceived benefits to their employees with:
• Increased productivity • Reduced stress related illness • Reduced absenteeism • Reduced number of errors or mistakes • Improved recall and memory due to having a relaxed and clear mind.
Mental activity in meditation is wakeful and relaxed. Professor Jim Lagopoulos from Sydney University used EEG testing to look at the difference in the brain when mentally active, resting, asleep or meditating as the brain has some form of electrical activity in all of these.
What he found was that those engaged in non-reactive meditation produced more marked changes in electrical brain wave activity associated with wakeful relaxed attention, compared to those who were just resting without any specific mental technique.
What about meditation as a tool to prevent memory loss?
The results of a small pilot study into use of meditation to prevent memory loss was published in March 2010 by Dr Dharma Singh Khalsa and Andrew Newberg Associate Professor of Radiology Pennsylvania University School of Medicine
They had 15 subjects age 52 to 77 years. with known memory problems. They undertook 8 weeks of Kirtan Kriya mediation for 12 minutes a day.
All the subjects underwent cognitive testing and brain imaging at the beginning and end of the 8-week period.
The meditation used was very simple. The subjects had to repeat four sounds SA, TA, NA, MA while touching their thumb to index, middle, ring and little finger.
They had to perform this out loud for 2 minutes, At a whisper for 2 minutes In silence for 4 minutes Then a whisper for 2 minutes And finally out loud again for 2 minutes
They were all given a meditation CD to play at home.
In the control group with memory loss, they were asked listen to two Mozart violin concertos for 12 mins a day.
Of the 15 in the meditation group; 7 had mild age associated memory impairment 5 had mild cognitive impairment 3 had moderate impairment with Alzheimer’s disease.
Of the 5 in the control group; 2 had mild cognitive impairment 3 had age related memory impairment.
The results found that those in the meditating group showed increased blood flow to frontal and parietal lobes (areas associated with memory retrieval) on scanning. In cognitive testing they all had improved performance in general memory and attention.
Those who had listened to music, showed some increased blood flow in different areas of brain but of less significance and they showed no improvement in cognition.
The suggestion from the study is that meditation may be useful in those with mild memory impairment to slow down or inhibit progression of memory loss by “strengthening” the brain.
Whilst interesting, it has to be noted that this was an extremely small study, but certainly warranting further investigation with larger studies to see if this finding can be replicated.
Other researchers have also looked at the question of whether meditation can assist focus and thereby allow better memory
Dr Gary W Small, Director of Memory and Ageing Research Centre, University of California has found that exposing older people to technology such as the internet changed their brain activity in just one week. He found that the older subjects showed an increase in frontal lobe activity in their brains and where short term memory and decision-making is important.
Meditation appears to be a useful tool not only for the workplace but also to perhaps assist us to maintain our cognition, as we get older. It may not be too long before meditation is offered more widely as a strategy to keep us brain fit.