“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day.” - Sara Lazar, Harvard Medical School instructor in psychology
While meditation is well known for its calming effects, it is not often that we hear about its positive effect on intellect and cognition. Here are five ways meditation can help keep your brain sharp:
1. Improved Problem Solving Skills
When learning to meditate, we are taught to observe sounds, emotions, itches, and even thoughts without reacting to them. Although this can be difficult to do at first, with practice we are able to witness the world without letting our emotions or thoughts cloud our perception of it. By taking a step back, and letting emotions and thoughts subside, we begin to see things from a different perspective, making it easier to identify solutions to problems.
Meditation also helps to silence the constant chatter and activity of our minds, even if only for a few short moments. This gives the brain a break from its usual “heavy lifting" and allows inspiration and creativity to manifest in its place.
You might have previously noticed this beautiful process unfold while doing something mundane such as washing the dishes or taking a shower. It is usually at the least expected times, when we allow our minds to relax, that we discover the solution to our biggest problem or generate an amazing idea (the AH-HA moment!).
2. Enhanced Memory Capacity
Studies have shown that a consistent meditation practice causes the brain’s cerebral cortex to thicken. This is an incredible discovery because the cerebral cortex is responsible for mental functions such as concentration, memory, and learning. A thickening of the cortex is directly related to an increase in capacity of all of its functions.
Another study published in the journal of Psychological Science examined the effects of a 2-week mindfulness-training course. Researchers concluded that those who practiced mindfulness experienced improved cognitive performance in the following ways:
- Better short term memory
- Improved scores on verbal reasoning test
- Enhanced concentration
3. Increased Attention Span
Meditation can improve our ability to focus on detail oriented tasks. Through meditation, we train our brains to pay attention to each task at hand, without being distracted and overwhelmed by a constant flow of thoughts. Developing the ability to let go of creeping thoughts frees the mind and allows it to focus on what really matters: the present moment.
This paper describes a study that assessed the effects of short-term meditation on attention span and self regulation. After only five days of twenty-minute meditation training, practitioners scored greater on the Attention Network Test while showing a significant decrease in stress related cortisol, and lower anxiety and depression than non practitioners.
Rather than popping an Adderrall before your next long study session, try taking a few minutes to practice mindfulness through meditation. You may be shocked at it’s effectiveness.
4. Better Decision Making
Research reveals that just one 15-minute focused breathing meditation could help people make smarter choices. This is possible because people who meditate regularly use different parts of their brains during the decision-making process than non-meditators do.
Based on a recent study, when faced with an important decision, non-practitioners of meditation relied heavily on the part of the brain linked to emotional disgust. Practitioners of meditation, on the other hand, did not, and were able to react rationally, instead of emotionally when faced with a decision.
5. Improved Performance
Meditation reduces stress and anxiety, while developing structures of the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. When we decrease our levels of stress and anxiety, daily tasks appear much more feasible and we have more mental energy to focus on things that actually matter to us. Regardless of where our focus is, it almost impossible to not outperform our pre-meditation selves.
You Might Not be a Buddhist Monk But...
The incredible benefits of this practice can be harnessed through a short and simple daily practice. Although you might not feel like a Buddhist monk after your first 15-minute session, in time you will come to find that your day is not complete without a few minutes of meditation.
For a Beginner’s Guide to Meditation, check out this post.
If you’re interested in the effects meditation will have on your workout routine or gains in the gym, check out this post!