#3 of 10 Good Reasons to Meditate (according to science): Brain Health
#3 Greater mental sharpness
Science has now shown that people who meditate demonstrate increased mental sharpness, greater ability to focus, and have better memories than those that don’t. And this isn’t just for people that have clocked tens of thousands of hours of meditation.
In one study, researchers examined whether brief meditation training affects cognition when compared to an active control group. The control group had four sessions of listening to a recorded book. The other group, none of whom had any prior meditation experience, were led on four sessions of mindfulness meditation. Both groups were then assessed for brain function. The results showed that for the meditator group, even this brief mindfulness training significantly improved visio-spatial processing, working memory, the brain’s executive functioning, and the ability to sustain attention.
A few years ago researchers at the University of Wisconsin decided to see if meditation had any effect on the attentional system in the brain. When our brain is confronted with multiple stimuli very close together it has a tendency to shut out the information. This effect is called “attentional-blink deficit” by neurologists and is thought to result from competition between stimuli for limited attentional resources in the brain. The researchers measured the electrical activity in the subject’s brains through scalp-mounted recorders as they bombarded subjects with changing stimuli in rapid sequence. The subjects were asked to identify two targets (both numbers) that were embedded in a rapid stream of distracter letters. So imagine looking at a screen with a series of letters flashing before you and during this rapid stream of rapidly changing letters, you are shown a couple of screens that have numbers. Their results showed that people that had even just two or three months of Vipassana meditation (albeit intensively) were more often than the control group able to detect the second number with no compromise in their ability to detect the first one. The control group that hadn't had the meditation training weren't as able to maintain their sharpness of attention at as high a level as the meditators.
And then there is my personal favorite: UCSB did a study that gave people a two week course on meditation. Participants met two times a week for forty five minutes. The control group was assigned to a nutrition class. The mindfulness group improved their scores by more than 30% on the GRE!