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Meditation as brain training

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You may be won­der­ing what med­i­ta­tion has to do with brain train­ing. In fact, med­i­ta­tion has been shown to improve spe­cif­ic cog­ni­tive func­tions such as atten­tion. As such it can be con­sid­ered as a brain train­ing tech­nique.

A num­ber of stud­ies have com­pared peo­ple who prac­tice med­i­ta­tion to peo­ple who do not. The prob­lem with these stud­ies is that peo­ple in both groups can be very dif­fer­ent. Thus the ben­e­fits observed in the group prac­tic­ing med­i­ta­tion could be due to oth­er things.

Recent­ly, a more con­trolled study was con­duct­ed that showed a spe­cif­ic effect of med­i­ta­tion on atten­tion, one of the main brain func­tions described in Chap­ter 1. In this study, Pos­ner and his col­leagues (2007) ran­dom­ly assigned par­tic­i­pants to either an Inte­gra­tive Body-Mind Train­ing (IBMT) or to a relax­ation train­ing. Both train­ings last­ed 5 days, 20mn per day. IBMT is a med­i­ta­tion tech­nique devel­oped in Chi­na in the 1990s. It stress­es a bal­anced state of relax­ation while focus­ing atten­tion. Thought con­trol is achieved with the help of a coach through pos­ture, relax­ation, body-mind har­mo­ny and bal­ance. The results of this study showed that after train­ing, par­tic­i­pants in the IBMT train­ing group showed more improve­ment in a task mea­sur­ing exec­u­tive atten­tion than the con­trol group. The IBMT train­ing also helped reduced cor­ti­sol lev­els caused by men­tal stress.

Styles of med­i­ta­tion dif­fer. Some tech­nique use con­cen­tra­tion med­i­ta­tion, mantra, mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion, while oth­ers rely on body relax­ation, breath­ing prac­tice and men­tal imagery. It is not known so far what aspects of med­i­ta­tion or which tech­niques are the best to train one’s brain. Sci­en­tists are research­ing what ele­ments of med­i­ta­tion may help man­age stress and improve mem­o­ry. For instance, Dr. Andrew New­berg (whose inter­view can be found at the end of the present chap­ter) is cur­rent­ly con­duct­ing a study where 15 old­er adults with mem­o­ry prob­lems are prac­tic­ing Kir­tan Kriya med­i­ta­tion dur­ing 8 weeks. Pre­lim­i­nary results in terms of the impact on brain func­tions seem promis­ing.

Keep learn­ing by read­ing more arti­cles in the Resources sec­tion, and also please con­sid­er join­ing our free month­ly Brain Fit­ness eNewslet­ter

This new online resource is based on the con­tent from the book The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness (May 2009, $19.95), by Alvaro Fer­nan­dez and Dr. Elkhonon Gold­berg.