Many of us try to include “brain food” in our daily diet. Blueberries, oatmeal, wild salmon, avocados and other foods have properties that may help improve memory, ward off dementia and improve overall cognitive health, researchers have found.
But eating “smart” isn’t the only way to improve brain health. Working on crossword and jigsaw puzzles, learning a second language, musical instrument or other new skill and exploring unfamiliar neighborhoods and cities can also improve memory and mental performance.
What about doing nothing?
That’s what a lot of people think when you mention mindfulness meditation, but there’s more to the practice than just sitting still. And now, research shows it could also be good for your brain.
What Is Mindful Meditation?
According to the global meditative community of Shambhala, “Meditation is a way to make the mind more stable and clear, a way to slow down and see how our mind works.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, says “mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. It’s about knowing what is on your mind.”
Mindful meditation is simply meditating on the moment.
Tips for starting a mindful meditative practice will be discussed later in this blog, but first, let’s talk about the brain benefits of such a practice.
Benefits of Mindfulness and Meditation
In a recent study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University, 35 unemployed men and women seeking work and experiencing stress were recruited. Blood was drawn, and brain scans were given. Half the group was taught formal mindful meditation and the rest, relaxation training.
“At the end of three days, the participants all told the researchers that they felt refreshed and better able to withstand the stress of unemployment. Yet follow-up brain scans showed differences in only those who underwent mindfulness meditation. There was more activity, or communication, among the portions of their brains that process stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm. Four months later, those who had practiced mindfulness showed much lower levels in their blood of a marker of unhealthy inflammation than the relaxation group, even though few were still meditating,” wrote New York Times reporter Gretchen Reynolds.
Reynolds wrote about another study involving yoga, meditation and chanting, this one focused on middle age and older adults concerned about their memory. For 12 weeks, half of the volunteers attended a class involving mental exercises, and the other half participated in yoga, meditation and chanting. Mental performance improved for all of them.
“But only those who had practiced yoga and meditation showed improvements in their moods — they scored lower on an assessment of potential depression than those in the brain-training group — and they performed much better on a test of visuospatial memory, a type of remembering that is important for balance, depth perception and the ability to recognize objects and navigate the world,” Reynolds wrote.
UCLA Professor of Psychiatry Dr. Helen Lavretsky, who oversaw the study, said researchers were surprised at the impact that yoga and meditation had on the brain.
The chanting used in the study involves a sitting meditation while singing the sounds of “Saa Taa Naa Maa.” The Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation, which partially funded the study, says the meditative chanting exercise can increase attention, concentration and focus and improve short-term memory and mood.
Mindfulness and meditation have additional benefits for older adults. Studies indicate it increases connectedness (decreases loneliness), relieves stress, and improves mood, health, and longevity. Many senior living communities have implemented meditation and practices that utilize mindfulness, such as yoga and tai chi, so residents may attain these benefits.
How Meditation Improves Brain Health
Psychiatrist Rebecca Gladding, co-author of You Are Not Your Brain, explains in Psychology Today how meditation works on the brain by looking at two areas of the brain:
- The Assessment Center that allows you to look at things from a more rational, logical and balanced perspective.
- The Me or Self-Referencing Center that processes information related to you, including daydreaming, thinking about the future, reflecting on yourself and engaging in social interactions.
Meditation strengthens the Assessment Center and the helpful aspects of the Me Center while weakening the unhelpful parts, she says.
Writing in Psychology Today, Dr. Gladding says “If you were to look at people’s brains before they began a meditation practice, you would likely see strong neural connections within the Me Center and between the Me Center and the bodily sensation/fear centers of the brain. This means that whenever you feel anxious, scared or have a sensation in your body (e.g., a tingling, pain, itching, whatever), you are far more likely to assume that there is a problem (related to you or your safety).
“In contrast, if you meditate on a regular basis, several positive things happen. First, the strong, tightly held connection between the Me Center and the bodily sensation/fear centers begins to break down. As this connection withers, you will no longer assume that a bodily sensation or momentary feeling of fear means something is wrong with you or that you are the problem. This explains, in part, why anxiety decreases the more you meditate – it’s because the neural paths that link those upsetting sensations to the Me Center are decreasing.”
To maintain the brain benefits of meditation, however, she recommends a daily practice. For those with emotional difficulties or concerned about possible adverse effects, she advises working with an experienced meditation teacher.
How to Practice Mindfulness and Meditation
Like many practices, meditation is not a one-size-fits-all.
Some teachers recommend closing eyes, others advise keeping them open. Candles and music can be used to enhance focus and calm, but such props are not necessary.
Basic guidelines for mindful meditation:
- Find a quiet space away from people, cell phones and the like;
- Sit on a cushion or chair, erect yet relaxed;
- Focus on your breath;
- As your mind wanders (and it will), label it “thinking” or “planning” and gently bring your attention back to your breath.
Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield writes in Buddha’s Little Instruction Book:
“At some sittings you will be able to return to your breath easily. At other times in your meditation you will mostly be aware of body sensations or of plans or thoughts. Either way is fine. No matter what you experience, be aware of it, let it come and go, and rest at ease in the midst of it all. After you have sat for twenty or thirty minutes in this way, open your eyes and look around you before you get up. Then as you move try to allow the same spirit of awareness to go with you into the activities of your day.”
American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron suggests beginning mindful meditation with a series of questions:
- What are you feeling?
- Are there any emotions?
- Are you experiencing any physical sensations right now?
- What’s the quality of your thoughts right now?
“With practice, you’ll find that you don’t need to run through a list of questions to bring yourself into the present moment on your cushion. It will become more automatic. Your intention is to simply locate your mind and stabilize the mind as you launch into your practice,” she writes in How to Meditate: A practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind.
Some people who practice meditation like to attend meditation centers for instruction and support. Shambhala offers more than 200 centers worldwide. Others may prefer participating in a weekend or weeklong meditation retreat at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, Esalen Institute in Big Sur, or another center.
Molly Kavanaugh frequently wrote about Kendal at Oberlin for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where she was a reporter for 16 years.