Most of us know that meditating is a great way to reduce stress. But meditative practice goes beyond taking a chill pill. Meditating is also associated with structural changes in the brain that help sharpen focus and improve memory and multi-tasking skills. But can this mind-body practice really help us get straight A’s?
Smarty (Yoga) Pants — Why It Matters
It’s not just tree-huggers and ultra-yogis who meditate. In 2007, about 9 percent of American adults had tried getting into their Zen zones at least once in the past year. Most people say they meditate to manage stress, but meditative practice affects the brain in many other ways.
While people have been meditating for thousands of years, it wasn’t until the 1970s that scientists started focusing on its brainy benefits. Numerous studies suggest that regular meditation (about six hours a week) may actually change brain structure Enhanced brain connectivity in long-term meditation practitioners. Luders, E., Clark, K., Narr, K.L., et al. Department of Neurology, UCLA School of Medicine, Los Angeles, CA. Neuroimage, 2011 Aug 15;57(4):1308-16. Epub 2011 Jun 6. . Scientists have found meditation is associated with a thicker cerebral cortex and more grey matter — i.e. the parts of the brain linked to memory, attention span, decision-making, and learning Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Lazar, S.W., Kerr, C.E., Wasserman, R.H., et al. Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA. Neuroreport, 2005 Nov 28;16(17):1893-7. The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter. Luders, E., Toga, A.W., Lepore, N., et al. Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, Department of Neurology, UCLA School of Medicine, Los Angeles, CA. Neuroimage, 2009 Apr 15;45(3):672-8. . But a year of silent meditation isn’t always necessary. One study found people who meditated at least once a week for four years showed increased cortical gyrification, the folding of the cerebral cortex that helps people process information The unique brain anatomy of meditation practitioners: alterations in cortical gyrification. Luders, E., Kurth, F., Mayer, E.A., et al. Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, Department of Neurology, UCLA School of Medicine Los Angeles, CA. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Front Hum Neurosci. 2012;6:34. Epub 2012 Feb 29. Mapping the relationship between cortical convolution and intelligence: effects of gender. Luders, E., Narr, K.L., Blider, R.M.,et al. Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, Department of Neurology, UCLA School of Medicine, Los Angeles, CA Cerebral Cortex, 2008 Sep;18(9):2019-26. Epub 2007 Dec 17. .
It’s still unclear how meditation actually changes the brain, but some scientists say devoting complete attention to one specific object or thought actually alters our neural networks Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Lazar, S.W., Kerr, C.E., Wasserman, R.H., et al. Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA. Neuroreport, 2005 Nov 28;16(17):1893-7. Cortical plasticity: from synapses to maps. Buonomano, D.V., Merzenich, M.M. Department of Neurobiology, University of California Los Angeles. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 1998;21:149-86. The effect of meditation on brain structure: cortical thickness mapping and diffusion tensor imaging. Kang, D.H., Jo, H.J., Jung, W.H., et al. Department of Psychiatry, Seoul National University College of Medicine, Republic of Korea. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2012 Jun 8. . And just remember, these studies don’t imply meditating will cause any changes in our brains, just that these cognitive abilities are associated with meditation.
Other research skips the brain scans and suggests some practical benefits of meditation. Om-ing is connected to better concentration and multi-tasking skills — things some of us might wish for when losing focus on the job. Researchers think meditation helps people deal with interruptions and work on multiple assignments more efficiently. Meditation can also help students battle stress on exam day A longitudinal study of students' perceptions of using deep breathing meditation to reduce testing stresses. Paul, G., Elam., B., Verhulst, S.J. Medical Dental Preparatory Program, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, Carbondale, Illinois. Teaching and Learning in Medicine, 2007 Summer;19(3):287-92. . One recent study found students who participated in two weeks of mindfulness meditation training performed better on the GREs than those who didn't Mindfulness Training Improves Working Memory Capacity and GRE Performance While Reducing Mind Wandering. Mrazek, M.D., Franklin, M.S., Phillips, D.T., et al. University of California, Santa Barbara. Psychological Science 2013 Mar 28. Epub ahead of print. . But before replacing the GCal with breathing exercises, beware of conflicting scientific findings.
Breathe In, Breathe Out — The Answer/Debate
So what’s the real deal? Meditation may be linked to some short-term perks, like acing a memory test, but scientists have yet to figure out how long the potential cognitive benefits of meditation last. Meanwhile, one study failed to find any correlation between short-term breathing meditation and cognitive abilities like memory, intelligence, and academic achievement Breathing meditation by medical students at Khon Kaen University: effect on psychiatric symptoms, memory, intelligence and academic achievement. Paholpak, S., Piyavhatkul, N., Rangseekajee, P., et al. Department of Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, Khon Kaen University, Khon Kaen, Thailand. Journal of The Medical Association of Thailand, 2012 Mar;95(3):461-9. . And some scientists argue that meditation only has brain-boosting power when we expect to see those kind of results The cumulative effects of Transcendental Meditation on cognitive function--a systematic review of randomised controlled trials. Canter, P.H., Ernst, E. Peninsula Medical School, Universities of Exeter & Plymouth, U.K. Wien Klin Wochenschr, 2003 Nov 28;115(21-22):758-66. .
It’s also worth noting that there are many different types of meditation, and certain people may benefit more from one meditation style over another Comparing individual preferences for four meditation techniques: zen, vipassana (mindfulness), qigong, and mantra. Burke, A. Institute for Holistic Health Studies, Department of Health Education, San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA. Explore, 2012 Jul;8(4):237-42. . So if you’re looking to get some big results from a little inward reflection, choose a type of meditation you like and feel most comfortable doing! From mantra to mindfulness and Zen to qigong, there are plenty of ways to get that third eye in focus.
Do you regularly practice meditation? What do you find are its best benefits?
This article originally posted August 2012. Updated May 2013.