Over recent years scientists and health practitioners have been interested in the health benefits of mindfulness meditation,including improvements in thinking and attention. It is suggested that mindfulness meditation can do this because of something called brain plasticity, or the brain’s ability to be changed over time. While past research using brain scans has shown that meditation techniques can show changes in brain areas associated with attention and concentration, it has always been assumed that extensive training was required to achieve this effect. However new research is suggesting that improvements in attention can be achieved even with just a few minutes of mindfulness practice every day.
But what exactly is mindfulness meditation?
Mindfulness is a way of paying attention that originated from Eastern meditation practices, “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.” It is a way to notice our thoughts, physical sensations, sights, sounds, and smells – anything we might not normally notice. Surprisingly, while this sounds easy, because our minds don’t normally work like this it can take practice to achieve. Mindfulness can simply be noticing what we don’t normally notice, because our heads are too busy thinking about what we need to do, or going over what we have done, haven’t done or should have done. While wide health benefits have been associated with mindfulness meditation practices, mindfulness meditation masters and instructors also talk about the benefits that it can have on cognitive (thinking) abilities, including attention, memory and other cognitive functions.
How does it work?
Much more research is needed to fully understand how a practice such as mindfulness meditation can lead to changes in brain function. However, some studies suggest meditation practice increases activity in the part of our brain called the cerebral cortex, especially the part located in the front of the brain, the area known as the frontal lobes and their underlying structures. Regular meditation practice may lead to increased thickness and stronger nerve pathways in these areas. This area of the cortex plays an important role in maintaining awareness of being “in the moment” and regulating emotions, so meditation training appears able to help us manage emotions better as well as enhance attention and memory.
Is there any real evidence that mindfulness meditation does actually improve cognitive abilities?
Various research groups have studied whether meditation practice will lead to improvements in cognitive functioning in ordinary people, that is – people who haven’t spent years training to meditate. In a recent review, a group of researchers looked at a whole range of studies examining the effects of meditation on cognitive functioning and concluded there was good preliminary evidence that mindfulness meditation can improve cognitive abilities. Some of the findings from these studies showed that compared with people who didn’t practice mindfulness meditation, those that did improved their ability to stayed focused on tasks and ignore distracting information, learned to multi-task more effectively, and had faster reaction times. They did caution that more high quality research is needed to support these early findings.
You can read more about the health benefits such as improved cognition and the stress reducing effects of mindfulness elsewhere on our website (http://www.christchurchpsychology.co.nz/news-and-views/mindfulness/) or through the resources at www.mindfulness.net.au.