Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily
When you’re meditating, it might feel like your brain is doing nothing—and in a sense, this is true. But meditation is not a waste of time and can improve your brain power for the long haul, as Professor Vishton explains.
Meditation and Concentration Tests
Neuroscientists have found that meditation can lower your stress levels, improve concentration, and ultimately boost the number of neurons in your brain. You typically receive your peak number of neurons when you are around three years old.
For the rest of your life, that number steadily declines. Age-related decline in cognitive function is presumed to be related to this general shrinkage in neurons.
If you can stave off that shrinkage with an activity that takes about a half hour a day, then the activity would most likely be worth your time. Professor Vishton recommends that you, at the very least, experiment with regular meditation for a few weeks.
Studies have demonstrated how regular meditation helps improve concentration. In the Stroop task, a series of color words are presented on a computer screen, and the letters of these words are printed in colors that do not match the word.
For example, the word “blue” is printed in red colors. The task challenges you to announce the colors as quickly as possible. Most people struggle with this task, but regular meditators have shown an increased ability to concentrate on selected sources of information and thus master the task.
Short-Term Meditation Benefits
Some studies have suggested that this improvement in attentional allocation happens not just when you meditate on a long-term basis, but even shortly after a period of meditation. As you spend time allowing your brain to focus on one particular thing, like a mantra, or allowing it to focus on nothing at all, you improve your ability to later focus on challenging tasks.
It seems strange that focusing on nothing at all would help, but perhaps the lack of focus provides the attentional system with an opportunity to rest, allowing it to operate better when the Stroop task starts.
Alternatively, maybe focusing on nothing ironically requires a lot of focus. As you get better and better at not allowing intrusive thoughts to enter your mind, you may be improving your ability to specifically allocate your attention on things when you aren’t meditating.
Whether or not you adopt this practice of meditating a few times a week, according to Professor Vishton, there’s good evidence that you should meditate for approximately 10 minutes to clear your mind as you prepare to undertake any mentally challenging task. In general, meditation is associated with increases in concentration, clearer thinking, and creativity.
Power of Non-Concentration
If you’re preparing to tackle a complex problem or to create a piece of artwork, start by meditating for a few minutes. Studies done on post-meditation performance of tasks suggest that your cognitive performance will be better.
“I don’t mean to think about how you’re going to begin the task; I don’t mean thinking about the problem you want to solve or maybe the first few steps in creating that artwork,” Professor Vishton said. “I mean spending several minutes not thinking about the project that you’re about to undertake.”
Somehow, not thinking for a few minutes about the project and the goals seems to enhance your performance when you do begin the project. You’ll lose just a bit of time that you might otherwise have spent working on the task itself, but the time invested prior to that will pay dividends throughout the completion of the task.
Ultimately, spending that time meditating at the beginning may actually shorten the time that you need to finish the task, also improving the general quality of the results of the task.
Professor Vishton recommends meditating for 20 minutes at a time, several times a week. If that seems like too much, you can start with something simpler.
Find a quiet place, close your eyes, relax your shoulders, and breathe. Inhale slowly, maybe mentally count to five while you do—one, two three, four, five—and then exhale back down—four, three, two, one.
Some people like to say a word instead of counting. Inhale slowly while thinking “reeeeeee,” and then exhale with “laaaaaax.” “Reeeeeee laaaaaax.”
You can repeat this a few times, maybe 10, and then open your eyes and go on with your day. According to Professor Vishton, even with a minimal exercise like this, you can experience numerous benefits, including improved concentration, enhanced happiness, and the ability to stay calm in stressful situations.
This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Peter M. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.