Meditation and mindfulness used to be words for yogis.
People used to think of meditation as ‘spiritual,’ and too far removed from the everyday person.
Mindfulness practice originates in Buddhist traditions (around 535 BC), but it has found its way into the mainstream world.
But mindfulness can do more than just make you relaxed.
Those calming few silent moments alone could actually make you a better learner, more focused and prevent age-related cognitive decline.
The Rise of Mindfulness
The sudden interest in meditation and mindfulness has been encouraged largely by the growing body of scientific evidence suggesting its benefits for overall wellbeing, particularly for coping with stress and anxiety management.
Research by Jon Kabat-Zinn shows exactly how mindfulness has blown up in the Western world in the last few years.
In the year 2000, only 10 articles about mindfulness were published in scientific journals. Since then, this number has been steadily increasing every year.
In 2016, a total of 667 articles were published.
Nowadays, apps like Headspace are making mindfulness techniques accessible to the everyday individual.
You don’t need classes and you don’t need weekend retreats anymore. These techniques are easily accessible to anyone who can jump onto the internet.
Even Spotify has series of podcasts dedicated to guided meditations (my favourite is Meditation Minis!).
You know that meditation and mindfulness can promote relaxation and lower your stress levels.
But here are 5 reasons you need to start using mindfulness meditation (other than relaxation) that you probably don’t know!
5 Benefits of Mindfulness Beyond Relaxation
1. Improve Your Attention
This study by van der Hurk and Gielen looked at experienced mindfulness meditators to determine whether the practice was related to increases in attentional ability.
Experienced meditators and a group of non-meditators were tested on the Attention Network Task.
This test measures someone’s ability to react and orient themselves to different targets on a screen, and correctly respond (usually by pressing different keyboard buttons when cued).
The researchers found that those with mindfulness experience were significantly better at orienting their attention (moving it from one thing to another).
This means that meditators were better at disengaging from one task, to quickly move to another target task when cued.
They concluded that mindfulness meditation develops a more flexible attention network, as a typical session usually involves shifting of attention from one thing to the next, successively.
But these were experienced mindfulness meditators… can these effects be mirrored in shorter time frames?
As the following studies show, improvements can also be immediate, with benefits following only short sessions of mindfulness.
This study by Ainsworth and other researchers looked at two kinds of meditation: focused attention (where people focus their mind on one thing, usually the breath) or open-monitoring (where people ‘open up’ their attentional circle to expand their observed sensations).
After either meditation session, or a purely ‘relaxation session,’ people were also tested on the Attention Network Test.
People who participated in the 3 hours of mindfulness practice – both focused attention and open-monitoring – performed better on the attention task when compared to a group that only engaged in a purely ‘relaxation’.
Improvements in performance occurred even when people could not report feeling any differences themselves.
Specifically, this article by Gallant explored the ways in which mindfulness training actually improves attention.
The researcher concluded that mindfulness benefits are targeted to one specific area: inhibition.
Your ‘inhibition,’ refers to your ability to sift through lots of stimulation or information and pick and choose what is relevant and what can be ignored.
There are lots of tasks that researchers can use to measure your ability to inhibit, including the Stroop test or the Hayling Sentence Completion task.
These tasks require you to inhibit automatic responses, and correctly respond against your first thoughts.
You can try out the Stroop Test online here.
Gallant concluded that studies investigating mindfulness and inhibition showed that people significantly improved in these tasks after mindfulness practice.
2. Improve Your Ability to Learn
Mindfulness meditation can even help you to learn better.
This study by Immink explored how a 30 minute yoga meditation can improve performance on a newly learnt motor task.
Twelve people were taught a sequence of key pressing patterns (similar to a piano).
Those who engaged in the meditation performed better when tested on the sequences 4.5 hours later, when compared to those who did not meditate.
The researcher concluded that the meditiation practice after learning promotes motor memory consolidation (the ‘sticking’ of new memories).
3. Prevent Age-related Cognitive Decline
Keeping your mind sharp as you age is super important!
Lots of people keep up reading or completing crosswords – but meditation has also been found to have positive affects on cognitive ability for both young and middle-adults.
This study explored 12 different experiments (six of which were very fancy, top-standard science ‘randomised control trials’).
The researchers reported that the various studies they reviewed demonstrated positive effects across many different cognitive domains.
This included improved attention, memory, processing speed and general cognitive ability.
However, they did note that many of the reviewed studies included only a small number of participants (making it less generalisable to the larger population) and could have been biased.
Overall though, they concluded that using meditation as a intervention for cognitive decline is definitely plausible!
Meditation could in fact have the power to help prevent age-related decline in thinking and processing ability.
4. Improve Emotional Regulation
This case study by Mosewich, Baranoff and Immink, followed an elite female athlete who participated in a mindfulness program alongside her competition training routine.
This athlete participated in a six week program with daily mindfulness sessions, along with self-compassion training.
Midway through the program, she reported greater self-accountability, self-reliance and overall awareness.
At the end of the six weeks, she also found that she felt an improvement in emotional regulation.
She could recognise her emotions better and take step back when she was feeling overwhelmed.
The athlete also reported that along with being better able to acknowledge and accept negative emotions, she also felt more connected to positive feelings.
It’s all about being more present in the moment!
5. Improve Immune Function
Yes, you heard me right.
Mindfulness might even may able to improve your immune function.
It is not surprising that a high-stress, run down body (full of the hormone cortisol) is more likely to become sick!
The stress on your body lowers your immune system and makes it easier for viruses to strike.
This study by Davidson and other researchers actually showed this phenomenon experimentally.
Twenty-five people participated in an 8 week mindfulness training program, while a different group of 16 people did not.
Both groups were injected with the influenza vaccine after 8 weeks.
The group in the mindfulness program showed a significantly greater rise in antibodies in blood drawn another 8 weeks later.
So what are you waiting for?
Give yourself the time of day.
Sit down. Be mindful.
I know it is easier said than done – but I’ve just given you 5 reasons to regularly be mindful that you didn’t know before!
If you have no idea where to start – jump onto Youtube or Spotify and search guided mindfulness meditations.
It’s that easy.
Read other neuroscience posts here!