“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…. ” is the introduction to “The Power of Concentration” by Maria Konnikova published in The New York Times on December 15, 2012.
Many of us believe that concentration is the inevitable by-product of meditation and the heart of meditation is mindfulness or awareness. When we practice, we are training our mind to be aware of itself–we are mindful of the activities of the mind. We do not force the mind to be quiet but it becomes quiet. We do not dismiss distractions but we acknowledge them and then guide the attention back to the breath or feeling or sensation, whatever we have been told to use as an anchor. And the distractions learn to remain in the background and not take over the control of the mind. In this way, we learn to observe the present and do not constantly remain entangled in the past and the hypothetical future. Concentration is awareness or mindfulness of what is now.
This is the process through which meditation enhances stress-free learning. Two reviewers of the guided meditation CD Being in Flow: Meditations for Peace, Insight, Clarity, and Focus wrote about their personal experiences in using the CD: enhanced productivity, greater creativity and innovative abilities, better ability to solve math problems and piano playing.
The New York Times article supports the reviewers’ experiences with studies and here is a brief summary.
- The article cites improvements on measure of cognitive and vital functions in adults.
- In a University of Wisconsin 2011 study, researchers demonstrated that meditation caused a shift in frontal brain activity toward positive emotional states for better emotional regulation (I have called this greater emotional fitness and immunity in my classes).
- With mindfulness, “attentional flightiness”, associated with multi-tasking seems to disappear and there is improved concentration.
- Mindfulness has positive behavioral as well as physical effects as it improves connectivity inside our brain’s attention networks.
- The practices even affect the brain’s default network. There is greater and more consistent access to information regarding internal states and there is better ability to monitor the surrounding environment.
- A 2012 Ohio State University study found that older adults who scored higher on mindfulness scales, the two areas (information processing hubs) that showed increased brain connectivity were the areas known to be “pathophysiological” sites for Alzheimer’s disease. So meditation may potentially help those areas of the brain stay healthier.
- By strengthening areas of the brain most prone to cognitive decline, meditation and mindfulness (terms used differently by various groups) may have a prophylactic effect on the mind-body.