- A growing body of evidence suggests regular meditation is linked with benefits including lower stress and better focus – a key trait that dissipates with age.
- Meditation is also one of Silicon Valley’s hottest trends, with everyone from startup employees to CEOs adopting the practice.
- And a new study suggests that the benefits of meditation could be more long-lasting than we thought, depending on how much time you can devote to the practice.
Stop. Breathe. Let everything go.
Giving your mind a break from bustling thoughts may empower it to run more efficiently.
The merits of meditation haven’t gone unnoticed amongst engineers and CEOs in Silicon Valley. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin are all well-known meditators, and their companies provide opportunities for employees to do so as well. At a recent health and technology conference organised by Forbes in Southern California, the day began with a 45-minute beachside group meditation hosted by author Agapi Stassinopoulos; later on, Andy Puddicombe, the co-founder of the $US250-million dollar mindfulness app Headspace made an appearance to guide participants through a mini meditation session.
A growing body of research on meditation suggests that even a few minutes of daily mindfulness is linked to lower stress levels, more positivity, enhanced creativity, and even better focus. That last trait, the ability to focus, is something that can begin to falter with age, but a new study suggests that meditating could be one way to help prevent this decline.
For a study published this week in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, researchers concluded that people who participated in a meditation retreat and continued to meditate daily had a superior ability to pay attention compared with those who either didn’t attend the retreat or failed to maintain a regular mindfulness practice.
Although enhanced focus has previously been identified as one potential benefit of meditation, this is the first study of its kind to suggest that those benefits can last as long as up to seven years, or the length of the study.
“This study is the first to offer evidence that intensive and continued meditation practice is associated with enduring improvements in sustained attention,” Anthony Zanesco, the lead author on the new paper and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Miami who began work on the analyses before starting his PhD program in psychology at the University of California, Davis, said in an emailed statement.
While previous research has suggested that meditation is a powerful tool to clear the mind, the most recent study suggests that it may also be a potent means of protecting it from some of the negative effects of ageing, such as a reduced ability to pay attention.
Mindfulness is a powerful tool to clear and protect the mind
Something about meditating – whether it’s the physical space we set up for ourselves each day or the mental space we make by regularly clearing the mind – seems to help us deal with the worrisome thoughts that can come up in our day-to-day lives.
It’s somewhat like taking a broom to the bustling thoughts that can crowd our heads and then waiting until all the dust has settled.
Several studies have found links between this mind-clearing and an immediate, measurable reduction in feelings of depression and anxiety as well as physical pain.
But the most recent study suggests that those benefits can be made to last a lot longer than a few minutes or hours – depending on how much time and space you can dedicate to your mindfulness practice.
For the research, 60 adults aged 22 to 69 with an extensive background in meditation were randomly assigned to either attend a three-month meditation retreat in Colorado or to be wait-listed for the retreat while still travelling to the retreat location for week-long assessment periods.
Those who attended the retreat were immersed in a hefty program of intense meditation. Not only did they learn meditation techniques from B. Alan Wallace, a Buddhist scholar and author from the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, they also meditated in groups twice a day and did their own mindfulness practice, totaling to about six hours of mindfulness each day.
At the end of the retreat, the researchers tested the participants on standard measures designed to assess their ability to maintain attention, their overall psychological well-being, and their ability to handle stressful situations. Those who participated in the meditation retreat and maintained a daily, roughly one-hour meditation practice fared significantly better than those who did not – a finding that held true both at six months, 18 months, and even at seven years.
Meditating may boost our ability to focus and empathise
When we go into a quiet room and block out a period of time for our minds to go blank, it appears to make it easier for us to enter a state of intense focus later on.
Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, looked into this idea for a long-term study published in the journal Emotion in 2012. For his analysis, Davidson compared people who had been meditating for years with complete beginners.
He found that when he tried to startle two groups of people – one that was meditating and one that was not – with a sudden interruption like a loud noise, the meditators were far less perturbed by the interruption than the people who weren’t meditating, regardless of whether they were new or experienced at the practice.
In a follow-up analysis, Davidson played the sounds of stressed-out voices to groups of experienced meditators and beginners, and then observed their brain activity patterns in an MRI. While he noted increased activity in two brain areas known to be involved in empathy among members of both groups, the activity was significantly more pronounced in the brains of the experienced meditators. People who meditate regularly, Davidson concluded from this work, might have an enhanced ability to respond to others’ feelings and empathise with them without feeling overwhelmed.
All of these potential benefits may have had an effect on the participants in the most recent study. Instead of disturbing participants with noises, the researchers involved in this paper had them discriminate between visual targets on a set of tests, and found that meditation appeared to significantly improve their performance.
“The present study suggests that intensive and continued meditation is associated with enduring improvements in sustained attention, supporting the notion that the cognitive benefits of dedicated mental training may persist over the long-term when promoted by a regimen of continued practice,” the researchers wrote in their paper.
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