Meditation is … well, it’s tricky, scientifically speaking. Does it sharpen your mind, or simplify it? Keep you young, or take you to the edge of death? And most importantly of all, why do so many people who do it seem so smug?
Well, it turns out they may have a valid reason: according to a study published recently in the journal Science Reports, people who meditate may actually have quicker brains than the rest of us. The team behind the research found that meditation can improve your brain’s ability to quickly switch between two main states of consciousness – and the effect is noticeable in as little as eight weeks.
“Tibetans have a term for that ease of switching between states,” study co-author Dr George Weinschenk told Neuroscience News. “[T]hey call it mental pliancy, an ability that allows you to shape and mold your mind.”
The study followed ten university students who signed up for a meditation class taught by Weinschenk. They each underwent a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan at the start of the course, and then again two months later. In the time between the scans, the students practiced a type of meditation called “focused attention meditation” (FAM), in which the meditator focuses their attention on something – anything really: internal or external, “their breath, a point on the wall, a phrase, or anything else as they saw fit,” explains the paper. If their attention drifted, they would just bring the focus back to their chosen object, whatever it was. This was to be practiced for at least 10 minutes, five times a week, with the experiences documented in a journal.
It sounds simple, doesn’t it? But just this small amount of practice produced some surprisingly dramatic results.
“The … study showed that 2-month meditation training increased brain functional connectivity, even when participants were not in meditative state,” explains the paper. “These findings demonstrate that … meditation training has a significant impact on the brain functional connectivity but not on the brain structure. Therefore the observed changes in functional connectivity are solely functional changes and not related to structural changes.”
To understand what had happened, you need to know about the two general states of consciousness that the brain has access to. The first is the default main network, or DMN. This (perhaps unsurprisingly) is the default state of the brain – it’s what’s going on in your head when you’re awake, but not really doing anything. It’s not that it’s never activated in other scenarios, but when you’re daydreaming, for instance, it’s the DMN that’s in charge.
The other is called the dorsal attention network, or DAN. This kicks into gear when you’re engaged in goal-directed behavior, especially when it involves visualizing how objects work and interact. What the study found was that two months of meditation, even for novices, was enough to significantly increase connections between the two networks, as well as within the DAN and between the DMN and visual cortex.
“The findings indicate the potential effects of meditation on enhancing the brain capability of fast switching between mind wandering and focused attention and maintaining attention once in attentive state,” notes the paper.
Now, the study had some obvious limitations: it was a very small group, with no control group. What’s more, there was only one follow-up session, and the study itself only lasted a short time, so there’s no way of telling whether these results could be generalized over longer periods. But for study co-author Assistant Professor Weiying Dai, whose background is in neuroimaging and Alzheimer’s disease, the results open up exciting new possibilities for research.
“I’m thinking about an elderly study, because this population was young students,” she told Neuroscience News. “I want to get a healthy elderly group, and then another group with early Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment. I want to see whether the changes in the brain from meditation can enhance cognitive performance. I’m writing the proposal and trying to attract the funds in that direction.”