Before the 1960s, scientists thought that the adult brain was static, that it could not change. But with a series of key experiments by Dr. Marian Diamond and her colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, it was discovered that with experience, the brain has the ability to change. By exposing rodents to enriched environments, filled with toys, running wheels, and other rodents, Dr. Diamond’s group found that the brain grows bigger, makes new connections, and develops an extended network of support cells. These brain changes translated to changes in behavior, such as decreased stress and enhanced learning and memory. This phenomenon is termed neural plasticity.
In the high stress environment that we live in, knowing that we have the ability to change our brains and minds is empowering. However, the way we deal with our everyday stressors is key because neural plasticity can occur in either direction. Many of us deal with the stress of work and home life by eating a poor diet, consuming alcohol or drugs, or remaining sedentary. Such maladaptive health behaviors have detrimental effects on our mood, motivation, and cognition. On the other hand, healthy behaviors like eating nutritious foods and maintaining a regular exercise regimen improve our mental well-being.
Dr. Wendy Suzuki (www.wendysuzuki.com), who was a student of Diamond’s, and her team at New York University, recently explored how the ancient mindfulness practice of meditation could change the mind in positive ways. Many previous research studies focused on the effects of meditation in Tibetan Buddhist monks with years of meditation experience. Though some of us might like to spend our days meditating, the responsibilities of life make this impossible. Most of us can barely carve out 30 to 60 minutes of our day for extracurricular activities. Therefore, Suzuki and her team asked whether only 13 minutes a day of meditation could improve mood, decrease stress, and enhance cognitive functioning.
Every day for 2 months, participants listened to a guided meditation. The meditation sessions included a variety of breathing practices as well as exercises aimed at bringing a relaxed awareness throughout each section of the body. Periods of silence were also included to allow participants to breathe at their own pace. This series of practical guided meditations were developed by Stephen Sokoler, founder of Journey Meditation (http://www.journeymeditation.com/about-us), whose missions is to, “share meditation in a way that all people [can] relate to, wherever they are in life.”
We found that compared to individuals who listened to podcasts for the same time and duration, meditators showed improvements in mood and cognition in the following ways:
- Decreased mood disturbance;
- Decreased anxiety;
- Decreased fatigue;
- Enhanced attention;
- Improved short-term memory; and
- Improved recognition memory, or the ability to recall previously experienced events.
In addition, we found that meditation improved the ability to respond to an acutely stressful event. Meditation can actually help you to be less anxious when faced with everyday life stressors.
Importantly, this research revealed that the mind can benefit from a daily regimen of meditation, establishing a “minimum dose” of meditation – 13 minutes daily for 2 months. The fact that this study was conducted in individuals who had no previous experience with meditation indicates that you can start any time.
As a neuroscientist, what I find fascinating is that you can change your brain through relaxing thoughts and calming breaths. You have the power to enhance your mood, improve your cognitive functioning, and decrease your stress level. And you can do this by natural means, without medication, and in a relatively short period of time.
The leading researchers of this work were Dr. Julia Basso, Senior Research Associate at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (www.juliabasso.com), and Alexandra McHale, PhD candidate at the University of Rochester. You can find a direct link to the paper here: https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/f817d1_21d54fbaf4424b87a25167002d300837.pdf.
Reference: Basso, J. C., McHale, A., Ende, V., Oberlin, D. J., & Suzuki, W. A. (2019). Brief, daily meditation enhances attention, memory, mood, and emotional regulation in non-experienced meditators. Behavioural brain research, 356, 208-220.
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