In a study that has been published in the latest issue of Consciousness and Cognition, Fadel Zeiden and his colleagues have shown that only four days of ‘mindfulness meditation’ training for only 20 minutes each day, improves not only mood and stress levels but also improves deep cognitive processing efficiency – core aspects of fluid intelligence such as working memory and sustained attention, as well as long term memory efficiency.
How the experiment was set up
49 student volunteers completed the experiment. They were randomly assigned in equal numbers to two types of ‘interventions’: either a 4 day meditation training schedule, or listening for an equal amount of time to a book reading – J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
Before and after the interventions, the participants in the experiment were given a broad range of psychological tests assessing mood, memory, visual attention, attention processing, working memory, and concentration. This allowed the researchers to quantify any improvements in mood or cognition due to meditation, compared to simply hearing a story.
The results of the experiment
Before the interventions, both groups performed the same on the different tests. Both the meditation and reading groups improved in mood after the 4 session interventions, but only the meditation group improved in the cognitive measures. The meditation group scored as much as ten times better on a working memory task – an important component of fluid intelligence. The meditation-trained group averaged aproximately10 consecutive correct answers, while the listening group averaged approximately one. Our IQ Mindware software makes use of the n-back task, known to improve fluid intelligence.
The brief mindfulness meditation practice – but not the book reading – improved concentration (attentional focus) and the efficiency of what are called ‘executive processes’ – the ability to maintain focus on tasks or goals in an intelligent way, and not be distracted. In other words, the ability to ‘stay on strategy’.
Meditators also gained efficiency in long-term memory retrieval – not just short term working memory, as measured by more fluid word association
The meditation group did particularly well on all the cognitive tests that were timed – where participants had to process information under time pressure causing stress.
Meditation and brain plasticity
According to the lead researcher Fadel Zeidan, “…this seems to be strong evidence for the idea that we may be able to modify our own minds to improve our cognitive processing – most importantly in the ability to sustain attention and vigilance – within a week’s time.”
…the profound improvements that we found after just 4 days of meditation training are really surprising. …It goes to show that the mind is, in fact, easily changeable and highly influenced, especially by meditation.
Mindfulness meditation: What is it?
Meditation training was conducted by a trained facilitator with 10 years experience in teaching mindfulness meditation. Here is a blog explaining how to do mindfulness meditation.
As described in the paper, “participants were instructed to relax, with their eyes closed, and to simply focus on the flow of their breath occurring at the tip of their nose. If a random thought arose, they were told to passively notice and acknowledge the thought and to simply let ‘it’ go, by bringing the attention back to the sensations of the breath.”
Mindfulness mediation is not only stress-reducing, but it improves what is known as ‘meta cognition’ – the ability to observe thought processes as they occur non-judgementally. Mindfulness meditation teaches a person to release sensory events that would normally distract you in a way that is emotion regulating. Many thoughts associated with stressful emotions can interfere with our dealing with the task at hand in a relaxed, efficient way, and mindfulness can help in regulating these thoughts – leading to better performance.
Long-term vs short term meditation
Brief (4 day) mental training through meditation is not as effective as extensive training regimens. It is well documented that long meditation training promotes lasting changes in cognition and well-being. Zeidan cautions: “This doesn’t mean that you meditate for four days and you’re done – you need to keep practicing”
However, the short term gains demonstrated in this study are dramatic and may have many every day uses – for instance in preparing for a stressful event such as an exam or interview.
What explains the effect of meditation on cognitive efficiency?
Firstly, the study provides strong evidence that brief MM training enhances sustained attention and ‘executive control’ – the ability to monitor performance and ignore distracting information when under time pressure.
Also emotion may play a role. In contrast to the participants in the study who just listed to a story, brief mindfulness meditation training reduced participants’ fatigue and anxiety ratings. Fatigue and anxietyare understood to be particularly critical in affecting information processing. The ability to self-regulate emotions has been found to be a key component in improving cognition.
The researchers also suggest that the meditation group’s improvements in mood may have reduced ‘mind-wandering’ – the way the mind can get distracted by thoughts and evaluations.
Combining meditation and dual n-back training
For the next 4 weeks I will be following this combination brain training regime which I believe to be effective.
On alternate days
Morning: 10 sessions of dual n-back training followed by 15-20 minutes mindfulness meditation.
10 sessions of dual n-back training followed by 15-20 minutes of brain teasers/fluid intelligence puzzles.
Evening: 10 sessions of n-back training followed by 15-20 minutes mindfulness meditation.
Zeidan, F., et al. Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and Cognition (2010), doi:10.1016/j.concog.2010.03.014