We have long believed that a cup of coffee every morning can make us more awake, yet a newly published study suggests that brief meditation can prepare us for the day just the same.
In past research, neuroimaging technology has shown that meditation techniques can promote significant changes in brain areas associated with concentration, but it was thought that the effect required extensive training to achieve.
However, according to the new research, the benefits may be achievable with much less effort. It suggests that the mind may be more easily trained to focus than we previously believed.
Psychologists found that participants who meditated for 20 minutes a day for four days showed an evident improvement in their critical cognition skills and performed significantly better in cognitive tests than a control group.
“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,” said Dr. Fadel Zeidan in a press release. Zeidan is a post-doctoral researcher at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, and a former doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where the research was conducted.
“Simply stated, the profound improvements that we found after just four 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.”
The study is published in the April 2 issue of Consciousness and Cognition.
The experiment involved 63 student volunteers. Participants were divided into two groups, one of which received the meditation training while the other group listened to a book (J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit) being read aloud for equivalent periods of time.
Before and after the meditation and reading sessions, the participants were subjected to a broad battery of behavioral tests assessing mood, memory, visual attention, attention processing, and vigilance.
Both groups performed almost equally on all measures at the beginning of the experiment. Both groups also improved at the end of the experiment in measures of mood, but only the group that received the meditation training improved significantly in cognitive measures. The meditation group scored as much as 10 times better on one challenging test that involved sustaining the ability to focus while holding other information in mind.
“The meditation group did especially better on all the cognitive tests that were timed,” Zeidan said. “In tasks where participants had to process information under time constraints causing stress, the group briefly trained in mindfulness performed significantly better.”
“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,” he said.
Zeidan noted that brief meditation only prepares the mind for activity, but it’s not necessarily permanent. Therefore, in order to have long-lasting effect, regular meditations need to be performed.