Meditation: It's not just for new age gurus and Yogis anymore. And, now, new research suggests that you don't have to devote years or even months of your life to the practice of meditation to reap major benefits on mind and body. Meditation can change our brain for the better in as little as 11 hours.
In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week (early edition), Yi-Yuan Tang, Michael Posner and colleagues randomly assigned University of Oregon undergraduates with no meditation experience to participate in either an integrative mind-body training (IBMT) meditation program or a relaxation program. In total, students completed 11 hours of training, split up into 30 minute sessions conducted over a one month period.
IBMT involves body relaxation, mental imagery, and mindfulness training - guided by a coach and assistive CD. This meditation method stresses a state of "restful alertness." The idea is to obtain a high degree of awareness of your body and mind such that unwanted thoughts are less likely to co-opt your attention and distract you.
The relaxation training program, on the other hand, helped people relax different muscle groups over the face, head, shoulders, arms, legs, chest, back, and abdomen. This progressive training was designed to help people achieve relaxation and calmness. However, as you will see below, it doesn't carry the same brain benefits as IBMT.
Importantly, both before and after training, the researchers scanned the students' brains while they rested, using magnetic resonance imaging or MRI. Just so we are on the same page, in MRI, individuals lie with their heads and upper bodies inside a machine often referred to as a scanner. An MRI machine is really just a large magnet - often 50,000 times stronger than Earth's magnetic field. Nonetheless, surprisingly, a scanner's function is rather limited. What an MRI machine does is measure the magnetic properties of the object inside it. When psychologists use MRI for their research, the object being measured in the scanner is the brain of the individual lying inside.
Our brains consist of both gray and white matter. The gray matter is where the cell bodies of neurons reside and where signals are sent from one brain cell to another. The white matter connects these gray matter areas and thus is very important too. It is because of these white matter connections that different parts of our brain can communicate and work together so well. The researchers focused on these white matter tracts, using a form of MRI called diffusion tensor imaging or DTI.
What the researchers found was that, after only 11 hours of meditation training, there were changes (for the better) in a white matter tract that connects the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) to other structures in the brain. The ACC is part of a network of brain regions involved in regulating our emotions, thoughts and behaviors. Simply put, after meditation training, the integrity and efficiency of the connections with the ACC - a major player in our ability to regulate our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions - improved.
Phil Jackson, coach of the LA Lakers, became well-known when he was coaching Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls to several successive championships for advocating meditation practices as a means of enhancing his players' performance. Successful individuals ranging from board members of Goldman Sachs to the Chairman of Ford Motor Company, William Ford, have also touted the benefits of meditation practices in their everyday and work lives. These powerful figures in sports and business are often using their intuition about the psychological benefits of their practice but, as I just described, now brain research suggests that these intuitions are spot on.
Whether you want to hit a 5-foot putt to win the tournament, nail a stress-filled pitch to a client, or ace an important test, the idea that the brain's structure can change as a result of meditation is intriguing because it means that meditation may help you regulate your thoughts, emotions and behaviors when you need to perform at your best - for example, under stress. Indeed, Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, politicians who are constantly performing under pressure, have attested to the power of meditation in helping to reprogram the mind. And, although it remains to be seen whether the mere 11 hours of meditation that changes in the brain is enough to enhance performance on the playing field, in the classroom, or in the boardroom, if it does, then it may be time to rethink our weekend acitvities. After all, 11 hours is less time than it would take to watch half a dozen movies or four football games, or to repaint the bedroom.