Many previous studies have shown through the use of neuroimaging that meditation can change the brain. But most of those studies have looked at medium to long-term meditators. Some looked at monks who had meditated for decades, and some looked at new meditators who had meditated daily for 6 to 8 weeks. At least this much meditation practice was thought to be necessary to create measurable changes in the brain.
But a new study at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte suggests that brain changes may happen much more quickly, in as few as four days!
Student volunteers were randomly assigned to either practice mindfulness meditation or listen to the reading of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, for 20 minutes a day, for four days. The groups were tested using behavioral tests of mood, memory, visual attention, attention processing, and vigilance. The meditative practice was a simple mindfulness technique. Participants were told to focus on their breath, and that when thoughts distracted them to notice the thought, and then refocus on the breathing.
What were the results? Both groups improved in mood, but only the meditation group improved in cognitive measures. In one challenging mental task, the meditation group did 10 times better than the reading group. It appeared that meditation improved the ability to sustain attention and vigilance.
This is an exciting study which hopefully will be replicated and expanded with their neuroimaging to see if there are functional or structural brain changes after brief meditation practice.
To summarize, it appears that a brief four-day practice of mindfulness meditation can significantly improve cognitive functioning that is related to attention and vigilance.
How lasting is this effect? Does it wear off in hours, days, etc.? What is the dose response ratio of meditation to cognitive functioning improvement? For instance, would eight days of meditation practice create even more cognitive improvement?
In any case, it’s worth practicing meditation at least briefly to see its effects on your mind and your emotions. Commit to 20 minutes a day for one week, and see what happens for you.
Now I’m off to meditate…
Copyright © 2010 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D. /The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions