Meditation & Your Brain: How Meditation Can Overhaul Your Mind And Boost Cognitive Function
A clear contender for Corporate Buzzword of the Year is “mindfulness”.
This word has been plastered all over productivity blogs over the last few years, with ‘peak mindfulness’ being reached in the last 12 months.
Entrepreneurs, ‘productivity hackers’, and management gurus have all been harping on about the power of “mindfulness”, what it can do for you and your career, and your health.
Some of these are just charlatans trying to get you to buy their eBook or a course. They’ll tell you that the only difference betweenyou and Elon Musk is a 30 minute “mindfulness” session per day.
But beneath all of the jargon and the internet marketing, there is a very real kernel of truth: meditation can have a profound impact on your cognitive function.
Regular meditation can not only make fundamental changes to the way you think, feel, and cope with stress, but it can even improve your physical health from head to toe.
Meditation, or “mindfulness” as some choose to call it, can take many forms.
In this article, we’re going to explore what meditation is, what effect it has on your mind, your cognitive performance, and your happiness. We’ll also touch on the physical effects of meditation. In the end, we’ll give you some tips on how to get started today!
As always, we’ll be staying away from spiritual mumbo-jumbo, sticking to what the science tells us.
What Is Meditation?
This might sound like a silly place to start, but a surprising amount of people have no idea what meditation actually entails.
Even people who think they know a great deal about “mindfulness” practices often don’t fully understand what we mean when we say “meditation”.
There isn’t really a simple way to explain meditation when you think about the fact that people spend entire lifetimes refining the practice, attempting to fully understand where it is taking them, and so on.
But a good definition can be found if we focus on meditation as practice.
That is what meditation is, at the end of the day: a particular method of training the mind to better focus.
All spiritual machinations and new-age jargon aside, meditation is simply an approach to disciplining the mind.
More practically, meditation is where an individual tries to focus their mind on a certain feeling, most commonly the raw sense data they are experiencing right at that moment.
They will try to focus solely on their breath, the feeling of the chair beneath them, and so on in an attempt to rid the mind of all other thoughts.
Since banishing all thoughts apart from raw sensory data can be very difficult, meditation typically involves sitting in a very quiet room and closing your eyes.
Many people believe that meditation involves trying to remove all thoughts from the mind.
However, this is almost impossible for a human being to accomplish.
An exceptionally relaxed, calm, and tranquil state can be achieved by gradually getting rid of thoughts from the mind.
But this usually requires one to focus the mind on one thing in particular.
So meditation is not a lack of thinking, as some people assume.
Rather, it is the practice of focusing on only one thing and banishing all other thoughts as they arise.
The word “meditation” comes to us from the latin verb meditari, which means “to think”. Very apt indeed.
This might sound easy, but try it yourself and you will learn just how hard your mind battles against prolonged, intense focus on the present alone.
The mind will aggressively try to wander, and it takes A LOT of practice to build up to meditation sessions of 10 minutes or more (in which you successfully remain aware of one thing in particular – your breath, the seat, the wind, the sound of a gong, etc).
So What Is Mindfulness?
“Mindfulness” and “Meditation” are often used interchangeably.
While mindfulness can definitely be called “meditation”, not all meditation can truthfully be called “mindfulness”.
Today mindfulness is often used by management gurus as a kind of catch-all term for relaxing.
However, mindfulness does have a rather more strict definition in relation to meditative practice.
Mindfulness involves focusing the mind and promoting awareness of one’s thoughts, just like in meditation.
The key difference is that when practicing “mindfulness”, one does not try to replace intrusive thoughts with focus on a particular object, feeling, or whatever it may be.
Instead, one simply acknowledges your thoughts as they occur, remains aware of your feelings and experiences as they are happening, and benignly watches them pass by.
The idea here isn’t disciplining the mind to be better able to focus on the here and the now. The idea is to force the mind to be aware of the here and now as it is happening.
The aim of mindfulness practice is to become fully aware of what we are doing, where we are, and what we are thinking.
In a sense, it is an attempt to train the mind to be more “in the moment” in our day-to-day lives.
A good way to differentiate the two practices would be to define meditation as a form of practice where you train the mind to concentrate its focus on one singular thing in the present moment and to allow all other thoughts to vanish. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is more “hands-on”; it is an attempt to become more aware of what we are doing in the present.
The two practices will no doubt help one another, and they no doubt share many benefits, but they are not really identical with one another.
Why Is “Mindfulness” So Popular Right Now?
You’d have to have been living under a rock for the last few years to have not seen the explosion of “mindfulness” into our culture.
The book shelves are constantly littered with self-help books offering mindfulness up as a cure for all of our modern ills.
Many businesses hire gurus to come and teach “mindfulness” to their stressed out employees.
Some companies have regular mindfulness sessions.
So why has “mindfulness” taken off but meditation remains, in the eyes of many people, a practice for Buddhists, new-age shamans and hippies?
Well, for one thing, “mindfulness” has a brand novelty to it that “meditation” simply does not.
But a more concrete reason is that mindfulness can easily be put into practice in your working day, whereas meditation requires you to dedicate time to practice in your spare time.
Mindfulness is easy to impliment for businesses struggling to hang on to staff in today’s stressed-out working environment.
Mindfulness can, in a sense, be incorporated into your working life, helping you stay calm and fight off stress while still remaining a productive employee.
If you tried to incorporate meditation into your working day, you certainly wouldn’t get a great deal done.
In fact, you’d be at risk of spending half your working day asleep (meditating in a comfortable computer chair is a short-cut to a nap for this author).
With its more hands-on, practical applicability and its very secular brainding, mindfulness makes the perfect tool for businesses trying to help their employees cope better with stress.
But both mindfulness and meditation have the potential to significantly lower your stress levels, help you focus better on the task at hand, and ultimately to get more out of your time.
All forms of meditation have the ability to change how your mind works, from bolstering your attention span, to riding you of anxiety, to heightening your ability to retain information.
Let’s get into this in more detail.
Cognitive Benefits Of Cognition
You are likely going to be amazed at how much of an impact meditation can have on your cognitive function.
Let’s start with the obvious one: focus.
If nothing else, meditation is the act of training your brain to focus.
In meditating, you are teaching your brain how to wave off intrusive thoughts and to stay focused on the important thing.
Indeed, the explicit goal of meditation is to stop you obsessing about the past and the future, and to become intensely aware of the present.
If you’ve ever struggled to get an essay done because you are incessantly worrying about the deadline, or something embarassing that happened the day before, then this is a skill you really want to work on.
Meditating regularly not only helps you stay focused, but it also increases the quality of your focus, helping you to get rid of all distraction and to get down to the task at hand with 100% of your attention.
It can help you stay calm, prevent feelings of being overwhelmed, and in this way can actually help you get more from your focused attention.
As William James said in his momentous The Principles Of Psychology (1890): “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment.”
Indeed, several groundbreaking studies have found that regular meditative practice leads to an enhanced level of focus overall.
The brain’s defaul mode seems to be one of constant ‘roaming’. By this, we mean that your brain at rest seems to constantly seek activity and stimulation.
This isn’t our speculation here; neuroscientists have identified the brain’s “default mode network”, or the “task negative network”. This network is very real indeed; FMRI scans have located it in a set of specific brain regions.
These regions are highly active when you aren’t focusing on anything in particular. They are essentially your brain’s ‘idling’ mode.
These brain regions are also heavily involved in wondering about the future, lamenting about the past, reflecting on other people, and judging your past actions.
In a sense, the brain’s “default mode” is responsible for the annoying, distracting voice that leads you away form the task at hand and gets you thinking about the comment your boss made on the way to the parking lot last night.
Meditation has been shown to significantly reduce activity in these default mode brain regions, and to promote activity in “task-positive” brain regions.
Task-positive areas of the brain and the task-negative network are negatively correlated. As activity in one rises, activity in the other falls.
By quieting down your defaul mode network, meditation can not only help you retain focus, but to enhance your focus; to constantly force more of your focus onto the rewarding task and away from the distracting inner-narrator.
The reduction of the default mode network can eventually result in a state now commonly known as “flow”.
Flow is where an individual becomes completely immersed in what they are doing. They lose perception of time, they lose an awful oto of their self-awareness, and they dedicate all of their mind to the task at hand.
Flow occurs when somebody is doing something right at the cusp of their abilities, something that is rewarding, and something that takes a long time.
So you might have experienced flow if you are a musician, a writer, a chess player, or a even college student desperately trying to finish an essay before deadline.
The flow state is conducive to extremely high quality output.
People in a flow state get more work done, of higher quality, with a lower perceived effort.
The problem is that if the “flow state” falters, the default mode network tries to kick in within a fraction of a second.
As meditation reduces activity in the defaul mode network, and trains you to resist distraction, then regularly meditating can help you remain in a “flow state” for much longer periods of time.
For software engineers, professional gamers, and creative people out there, that is a serious benefit.
That meditation can improve focus has been well established by several scientific studies.
For example, this study, published in Frontiers In Behavioral Neuroscience in 2014, looked at the effect of different meditation practices on various aspects of mental health.
The authors found that: “Overall, reviewed studies suggested a positive effect of meditation techniques, particularly in the area of attention, as well as memory, verbal fluency, and cognitive flexibility.”
Interestingly, the authors noted the following: “Meditation can be a potentially suitable non-pharmacological intervention aimed at the prevention of cognitive decline in the elderly.”
Similarly, in this 2010 study from Consciousness & Cognition researchers came to some pretty strong conclusions about the benefits of meditation:
“Brief meditation training reduced fatigue, anxiety, and increased mindfulness. Moreover, brief mindfulness training significantly improved visuo-spatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning. Our findings suggest that 4days of meditation training can enhance the ability to sustain attention; benefits that have previously been reported with long-term meditators.”
This fascinating article from Psychology Today looked at how the brain responds to meditation through brain scans.
The referenced study first found that meditators do indeed have better control over their mind’s incessant wandering. This was confirmed through MRI scans.
Then the researchers tested the subjects’ rapid visual information processing. As you might have guessed, regular meditators significantly out-performed non-meditators in their ability to take in information quickly, digest it, and to spot patterns.
Meditation & Anxiety
Perhaps the biggest different meditation makes in the lives of its practitioners is its ability to reduce stress and anxiety.
For many people, the source of anxiety is distracting throuhgts that just wont go away.
It is the voice in their head that constantly reminds them of what they have to worry about.
This voice is the source of their constant worrying about the future or their constant ruminations on the past.
As explained above, meditation effectively hushes the areas of the brain responsible for your brain’s “default mode” of reflecting on the past, thinking about the future, and imagining about other people.
This in turn will help you ignore your mind’s inner monologue; that voice that keeps you going back to the argument you had with your colleague last week, or the big presentation you have in the coming days, or what your co-workers really think of you.
The ability to mute that annoying inner voice can make a huge difference to someone who struggles with serious anxiety.
In helping you remain “present”, focused on the here and now and not constantly following your mind’s idle wandering and distracting interjections, meditation can in fact be the best cure for stress and anxiety anybody can ever ask for.
Meditation seems to have a more immediate effect on anxiety too.
It seems that meditation itself has some very powerful anxiolytic properties at the neural level.
One study has found that meditation leads to higher activity in an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex.
This brain region is thought to have a suppressing effect on anxiety.
Subjects who reported having fewer or less intense feelings of anxiety had higher activity in this region. The conclusion we can draw from this is that meditation seems to have a very direct and physical effect on anxiety as well as a more secondary, conscious effect.
If you are interested in doing more research on meditation and anxiety, we strongly recommend you take a look at this meta-analysis.
While it ultimately found meditation to be a complimentary cure for anxiety, it does say that it is effective and that clinicians should consider introducing it with their patients.
Meditation & Mood
Meditation has some incredibly powerful mood altering powers.
Regular meditation has been shown to have long-lasting effects on subjective well-being, happiness, and emotional stability.
Frequent meditators regularly report feeling more content with their lives since they started.
People regularly report feeling happier, more grounded, and less emotional immediately after a good session.
Amazingly, 15 minutes seems to be enough to seriously reduce anxiety.
This isn’t just hearsay. There have been a number of hard scientific studies looking at meditation as an anxiolytic. Their findings have been most encouraging.
This paper reviews many studies looking at mindfulness practices and meditation.
The authors note several studies which show a relationship between mindfulness and subjective well-being: “The effect of mindfulness-based treatment is not limited to alleviating physical symptoms only but it has also been shown to improve subjective well-being (SWB) of those individuals who received a mindfulness-based treatment (e.g., Cherie & Dianne, 2010; Corey, Patricia, & Rhonda, 2006; Ryan, 2003).”
Indeed, mindfulness has found its way into accepted clinical practice for the treatment of anxiety, depression, and so on.
There is a reason that art therapy has found a place in so many prisons and mental hospitals throughout the United States. That reason is that it seems to work.
Art therapy gets subjects to focus intently on what they are doing right at that moment. Painting is difficult, but rewarding. It is ideal for getting somebody into a “flow state”, which as discussed above is very close to meditation.
This study combined art therapy with breathing meditation techniques.
The clinicians involved took anxious, depressed adolescents and gave them either 1) art therapy plus meditation, 2) just art therapy, or 3) no therapy at all.
The results were pretty conclusive: “Scores were significantly higher in experimental group 1 (who experienced art therapy combined with breath meditation) and 2 (who experienced only art therapy), than in the control group (who received no therapy). Scores were significantly higher in group 1 than in group 2.”
Meditation & Health
This is a website dedicated to cognitive enhancement, so we shouldnt’ really be discussing the many health benefits of meditation.
However, so miraculous is the list of health benefits of meditation that any discussion of the practice wouldn’t be complete without at least a passing mention.
Regular meditation has been linked to a long list of health benefits.
This is an extensive but by no means exhaustive list:
- Lower risk of heart disease
- Lower risk of stroke
- Reduce inflammation
- Improve blood flow
- Attenuate insomnia
- Help balance cholesterol
- Increase longevity
The benefits of meditation are not limited to long-term, hard-core practitioners.
Meditation seems to have very acute benefits, including but not limited to:
- Reduce blood pressure
- Suppress cravings (nicotine, alcohol, etc)
- Suppress appetite (for those struggling with obesity)
- Reduce physical pain
Getting Started – Meditation & Your Working Day
How do I meditate?
If you’ve come this far, and you’re sold on the many cognitive benefits of meditation, then you’re probably ready to get going.
But getting started might seem a bit daunting if you’ve never been guided through meditation before.
After all, it sounds straight forward on paper, but it might not be clear what you DO exactly.
So, here is a quick 8 step guide:
- Choose a time that works for you
- Go to a calm, quiet place and sit for a few minutes
- Find a position that lets you completely relax
- Start taking some long, controlled breaths
- Now, try to focus on the feeling of the air passing through your nose
- Once you have total focus on that feeling, try to follow the air into your lungs, and back out over your lips
- Whenever a thought enters your head, don’t fight it; just try to re-focus on your breathing
- After a few attempts at re-focusing on your breathing, open your eyes slowly and allow your breath the return to normal
Try just doing 5 minutes at first.
It doesn’t matter if you can do more. For the first few sessions just do 5 minutes and leave it there.
In our experience it is better to get very comfortable with short periods of time before trying to go for longer sessions and potentially frustrating yourself or getting bored with it.
Once you manage 5 minutes comfortably, try doubling it to 10, then 20, with the final goal being a full 30 minute session.
There’s no rush to get to this point.
Buddhist monks may meditate for a large portion of their day, and they csan do absolutely marathon sessions, but generally speaking even seasoned practitioners will limit themselves to 30 minutes at a time.
There is only so much your brain can handle, after all. You’re only human!
The actual meditation itself might not be the hard part for you.
For lots of people, the difficulty is actually making time for meditation, creating the right atmosphere, and avoiding distraction.
Again, this might sound easy, but in reality it is harder than you might expect.
So, here are a few tips to help you create the right atmosphere for your first meditation practice:
- Leave your phone, tablet, or whatever in a different room
- Turn off the TV, even if it is nowhere near you
- Take off your shoes
- Sit on something comfortable; even lying down is fine
- If it is warm enough and you live in a relatively quiet area, try opening a window
- Tell anybody else in the house not to disturb you for 10 minutes
Now Get Going!
If you’ve read this full article (long, we know), then you are surely now convinced that meditation has some pretty amazing benefits to offer.
From increased cognitive function and greater focus to more emtoional stability and lower blood pressure, there is something in meditation for everyone.
The trick here is to not think about it too much and to get started.
Make some time this evening and give it a try!
Let us know what you think about meditation.
Have you been practicing it for a while?
How has it helped you?
Struggling to get anythiung out of it?
Not sure what all the fuss is about?
We’d love to hear from you no matter what you have to say. Let us know in the comments section below and we’ll get back to you asap!
Henry is a long-time contributor to this site. He has years of experience both using natural nootropic supplements, enhancing productivity, and generally making himself a more efficient, effective, healthier person. He mainly writes about natural cognitive enhancement (through diet, behavior, practices, etc).