Studies have suggested that meditation promotes brain activity, boosts the immune system, helps with insomnia, reduces pain, and increases the thickness of the meditator’s prefrontal cortex. I have my doubts about yogic flying, but there’s some pretty strong evidence that meditation is useful.
So it’s not terribly surprising that a new study found that meditation improves brain function. What is surprising is that the improvements were measured after only four days (each daily session lasted 20 minutes). Previous research often tested meditators who had been practicing for at least a couple of months.
For the study, participants were taught to meditate by focusing on the sensation of their breathing, acknowledging and dismissing any stray thoughts that popped into their heads. Meanwhile, the control group listened to an audiobook—which, for some reason, was by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Tests showed that both groups were more relaxed. But those who had meditated also demonstrated significant improvements in working memory, verbal fluency, and executive function. From the paper:
Our findings show that there are immediate, short-term benefits to practicing mindfulness meditation. These benefits may have clinical implications. For instance, if a meditative state can be experienced after a brief training regimen, then individuals may feel more inclined to continue practice, which can lead to better health outcomes (Grossman et al., 2004). Moreover, meditation practice may be more attractive and easily disseminated if it can be shown to be effective without extensive training.
More experienced meditators, the authors note, probably experience greater benefits. But their research suggests that a long weekend of meditating might make you a little bit smarter.
(Here’s the abstract for the paper, which is titled, “Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training.” The authors are Fadel Zeidan, Susan K. Johnson, Bruce J. Diamond, Zhanna David, and Paula Goolkasian.)