Meditation Can Improve Your Life!

MEDITATION and mindfulness: the words conjure images of yoga retreats and Buddhist monks. But perhaps they should evoke a very different picture: a man in a deerstalker, puffing away at a curved pipe, Mr. Sherlock Holmes himself. The world’s greatest fictional detective is someone who knows the value of concentration, of “throwing his brain out of action,” as Dr. Watson puts it. He is the quintessential unitasker in a multitasking world.

More often than not, when a new case is presented, Holmes does nothing more than sit back in his leather chair, close his eyes and put together his long-fingered hands in an attitude that begs silence. He may be the most inactive active detective out there. His approach to thought captures the very thing that cognitive psychologists mean when they say mindfulness.

Though the concept originates in ancient Buddhist, Hindu and Chinese traditions, when it comes to experimental psychology, mindfulness is less about spirituality and more about concentration: the ability to quiet your mind, focus your attention on the present, and dismiss any distractions that come your way. The formulation dates from the work of the psychologist Ellen Langer, who demonstrated in the 1970s that mindful thought could lead to improvements on measures of cognitive function and even vital functions in older adults.

Now we’re learning that the benefits may reach further still, and be more attainable, than Professor Langer could have then imagined. Even in small doses, mindfulness can effect impressive changes in how we feel and think — and it does so at a basic neural level.

In 2011, researchers from the University of Wisconsin demonstrated that daily meditation-like thought could shift frontal brain activity toward a pattern that is associated with what cognitive scientists call positive, approach-oriented emotional states — states that make us more likely to engage the world rather than to withdraw from it.

Participants were instructed to relax with their eyes closed, focus on their breathing, and acknowledge and release any random thoughts that might arise. Then they had the option of receiving nine 30-minute meditation training sessions over the next five weeks. When they were tested a second time, their neural activation patterns had undergone a striking leftward shift in frontal asymmetry — even when their practice and training averaged only 5 to 16 minutes a day.

As little as five minutes a day of intense Holmes-like inactivity, and a happier outlook is yours for the taking — though this particular benefit seems to have been lost on Holmes himself, what with his bouts of melancholy and his flirtations with a certain 7 percent solution. A quick survey will show that the paradox is illusory: Holmes is depressed when there is no target for his mental faculties. Give him a project, and balance is restored.

But mindfulness goes beyond improving emotion regulation. An exercise in mindfulness can also help with that plague of modern existence: multitasking. Of course, we would like to believe that our attention is infinite, but it isn’t. Multitasking is a persistent myth. What we really do is shift our attention rapidly from task to task. Two bad things happen as a result. We don’t devote as much attention to any one thing, and we sacrifice the quality of our attention. When we are mindful, some of that attentional flightiness disappears as if of its own accord.

In 2012, researchers led by a team from the University of Washington examined the effects of meditation training on multitasking in a real-world setting. They asked a group of human resources professionals to engage in the type of simultaneous planning they did habitually. Each participant was placed in a one-person office, with a laptop and a phone, and asked to complete several typical tasks: schedule meetings for multiple attendees, locate free conference rooms, write a memo that proposed a creative agenda item and the like. The information necessary to complete those tasks? Delivered as it otherwise would be: by e-mail, through instant messages, over the phone and in person. The list was supposed to be completed in 20 minutes or less.

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