What is it that meditation can’t help us do? Or how about another rhetorical question: The brain is a funny thing, isn’t it? We try to stuff it with good things, we are unable to undo any unintentional stuffing (for the most part) and then we have to tell it to stop talking to us about all the stuff it’s stuffed full of, plus things like worry and imagination that take on narrations of their own. What if we could clear all the chatter and organize our thoughts like those awesome closet organizers we always get deal alerts for in our email inbox and never buy because we’re too distracted and then the deal ends? What were we talking about again?
This is what mindfulness meditation can help us do and what some researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara have found in a recent study on “task-unrelated” thoughts, the official term for distractions and dillydallying.
Published last month in the journal Psychological Science, the two-week study involved 48 University of California undergrads who were evaluated for “working memory capacity, mind-wandering and performance on a G.R.E. reading comprehension section.” Half of the group took classes in nutrition (way to change up the control group, guys) while the other half participated in a mindfulness-based stress-reducing program meeting four days a week for two weeks, instead of the regular once a week for eight weeks one might find outside of the study.
What researchers found after only two weeks was that mindfulness meditation helped beat cases of the mind-wanderings and improved working memory, as in students were able to access bits of info and use them more readily, helping them do better on tests. Sounds simple and difficult enough. Most of us on the brainwave-o-meter place closer to a neural twitter feed when it comes to meditation so we know it’s not always easy to keep your mind focused and unflapped.
Wait, so all we have to do is master meditation to become crazy brain geniuses, right?? Not exactly. The meditation practices don’t necessarily make you smarter, but instead help you put your mental shoes and belts and the crazy cat sweater you got from your loving yet completely out of touch aunt who still thinks you’re 10 years old in their rightful place in your brain-sized closet, so to speak.
“A type of training that can help one avoid susceptibility to worries, or other sources of mind-wandering, very well could improve performance,” said Nelson Cowan, a professor at the University of Missouri who specializes in the study of working memory capacity and attention, in an e-mail message.
Daniel T. Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “When Can You Trust the Experts? How to Tell Good Science From Bad in Education,” said that “when you see these big effects, it may not be that you’ve really fundamentally changed how the mind works. But you have removed a stumbling block that was absorbing them.”
It’s no miracle drug and it’s not some passing fad, and thank goodness. Meditation is something you have to work at and practice and keep at it. Input does not stop seeping into your brain, so you have to keep organizing.
Another interesting part of the study was that the meditation classes involved “the secular pillars of the practice” like sitting in an upright posture with legs crossed and gaze lowered, breathing exercises and “minimizing the distracting quality of past and future concerns by reframing them as mental projections occurring in the present.”
Sounds sorta familiar.