Meditation – ‘mindfulness can effect impressive changes in how we feel and think’

by Grace

I think I should start meditating.

Even in small doses, mindfulness can effect impressive changes in how we feel and think — and it does so at a basic neural level….

Some background from Maria Konnikova writing in the New York Times:

Though the concept originates in ancient Buddhist, Hindu and Chinese traditions, when it comes to experimental psychology, mindfulness is less about spirituality and more about concentration: the ability to quiet your mind, focus your attention on the present, and dismiss any distractions that come your way. The formulation dates from the work of the psychologist Ellen Langer, who demonstrated in the 1970s that mindful thought could lead to improvements on measures of cognitive function and even vital functions in older adults.

What are some benefits of mindfulness?

1. A ‘happier outlook’ on life

In 2011, researchers from the University of Wisconsin demonstrated that daily meditation-like thought could shift frontal brain activity toward a pattern that is associated with what cognitive scientists call positive, approach-oriented emotional states — states that make us more likely to engage the world rather than to withdraw from it….

As little as five minutes a day of intense Holmes-like inactivity, and a happier outlook is yours for the taking …

2. Better multitasking

But mindfulness goes beyond improving emotion regulation. An exercise in mindfulness can also help with that plague of modern existence: multitasking. Of course, we would like to believe that our attention is infinite, but it isn’t. Multitasking is a persistent myth. What we really do is shift our attention rapidly from task to task. Two bad things happen as a result. We don’t devote as much attention to any one thing, and we sacrifice the quality of our attention. When we are mindful, some of that attentional flightiness disappears as if of its own accord.

In 2012, researchers led by a team from the University of Washington examined the effects of meditation training on multitasking in a real-world setting….

The only participants to show improvement were those who had received the mindfulness training. Not only did they report fewer negative emotions at the end of the assignment, but their ability to concentrate improved significantly. They could stay on task longer and they switched between tasks less frequently. While the overall time they devoted to the assignment didn’t differ much from that of other groups, they spent it more efficiently. … They also remembered what they did better than the other participants in the study.

3. Improved ability to focus

… In recent years, mindfulness has been shown to improve connectivity inside our brain’s attentional networks, as well as between attentional and medial frontal regions — changes that save us from distraction. Mindfulness, in other words, helps our attention networks communicate better and with fewer interruptions than they otherwise would….

Not only could this increased connectivity make us better able to switch between tasks and monitor our own attention, but it is indicative of more effective overall management of our finite attentional resources.

4. Enhanced awareness of surroundings

…  After a dose of mindfulness, the default network has greater consistent access to information about our internal states and an enhanced ability to monitor the surrounding environment.

5. Protection against decline associated with old age

…  In 2006, a team of psychologists demonstrated that the neural activation patterns of older adults (specifically, activation in the prefrontal cortex), began to resemble those of much younger subjects after just five one-hour training sessions on a task of attentional control….

…  In 2012, researchers from Ohio State University demonstrated that older adults who scored higher on mindfulness scales had increased connectivity in their default networks … The precise areas that show increased connectivity with mindfulness are also known to be pathophysiological sites of Alzheimer’s disease.

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… These effects make sense: the core of mindfulness is the ability to pay attention….

A paradox

… That’s the thing about mindfulness. It seems to slow you down, but it actually gives you the resources you need to speed up your thinking.

I need to do this.

Poor attention skills abound among members of my immediate family.  Over the past few years I have sensed my own declining ability to focus over a prolonged period.  In writing this blog, I sometimes find myself taking an hour or more to write a post that should only require about 20-30 minutes.

What should I do?  In my fantasy, I imagine a weekend family meditation retreat as a jump-start to improved mindfulness.   But maybe I should first read Konnikova’s new book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.  It’s probably not complicated, but more research is needed.*  Any specific suggestions would be welcome.

* Am I procrastinating?  I have been known to suffer from analysis paralysis.

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3 Comments to “Meditation – ‘mindfulness can effect impressive changes in how we feel and think’”

  1. I have found meditation extremely helpful over the last 30 years or so, but I still struggle to do it on a daily basis when there isn’t an immediate need. That is, I’ve been good about using it to address test anxiety, nervousness about upcoming events (athletic or life changes), but not so good at continuing when there is nothing looming over me.

    If I were you, I think I would look for someone to guide and instruct, at least initially. That was how I started, way back in college. Commitment to another person helps with starting a habit, or it seems that way to me, and an in-person instructor could adjust what is done so that it works for you. Failing that, I’d look for recorded guided meditation sessions of a variety of lengths and types.

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  2. Thanks for your perspective on this. I can definitely see how it would be easy to stop making time for meditation when thinks are going well.

    I started reading a book – 8 Minute Meditation: Quiet Your Mind. Change Your Life – that seems to be giving a quick and dirty start on meditating, but I have been wondering about the value of having someone to guide me. Offhand, I don’t really know who that would be, but I’ll research it a bit. I’m looking at nearby retreats that I would like to try, and I might check with a local yoga place to see if they have any ideas.

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