Your Brain on Meditation

Scientific research shows what Buddhist monks and meditators have known for centuries: Mindfulness practice greatly reduces stress and improves our ability to focus. And, it turns out, that can translate into higher test scores and a better memory.

Mindfulness meditation, traditionally done sitting cross-legged on a cushion, uses the breath to help us redirect our awareness to the present moment. Instead of just letting the mind get derailed in a spiral of stories and worries about the past and future, the practice helps the mind pay attention to what is actually happening now.

For a study published in the journal Psychological Science, a group of researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, enrolled 48 undergraduates in an experiment. Half of the subjects practiced mindfulness four days a week for two weeks, while the other half took part in a healthy nutrition program.

Researchers found that in the group that meditated, the students’ working memory actually improved, while their habitual mind wandering started to decrease. They also had higher GRE verbal scores, which jumped on average from 460 to 520 in only 14 days.

“We had already found that mind wandering underlies performance on a variety of tests, including working memory capacity and intelligence,” UC Santa Barbara graduate student Michael D. Mrazek told The New York Times.

In short, the meditation group was better able to focus on ideas and remember facts without getting distracted as easily.

Angela Wilson, a Kripalu faculty member, says, “One of the ways yoga and meditation helps with the ability to focus or take tests is that stress-reduction practices help to regulate the autonomic system. Someone who is going to take a test is [often] a bit stressed. Too much of that will make it more difficult to concentrate and remember things.” If we are calm, it’s easier to recall information and be at our best, and that’s where mindfulness practices come into play.

“A lot of people will tell you that meditating for performance misses the point, but I think meditation makes you far more productive,” says CEO coach Peter Bregman, author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done.

“When you are meditating, you are better able to separate the noise from the static and focus on what matters—making decisions and having conversations that can help you achieve what you want,” Peter says.

What we are called to do in everyday life is what we are called to do when we meditate. Meditation can strengthen our resolve to make intentional decisions, which in turn can better help us tackle an overflowing email in-box, get our work done on time, and navigate complex interpersonal relationships.

On the flip side, our mind’s natural inclination to wander can get in the way of our working memory because when the brain is more distracted, it has a harder time deciding what is important to remember.

One common misconception about meditation is that the goal is to have no thoughts at all. Actually, the practice is to allow the thoughts to flow but not get absorbed in their narrative.

“If someone screams at you and you have a meditation practice, it might be easier to take a few breaths and not go to the place where the yell is taking you,” says Peter. “Whereas, a person who doesn’t have a practice, well, it might be very easy for that yell to knock them off balance.”

If you train your mind not to get swept up when faced with distractions, you will be better able to deal with common stimuli—like emails, texts, phone calls, and arguments—and react to them skillfully.

“The practice you are doing on the cushion, when your mind wanders and comes back to a one-pointed focus, helps you to learn how to avoid the distractions of the other stimuli that comes into your mind,” Angela  says. “And that will have a translatable effect to other areas of your life as well.”

Ever find yourself working hard on your computer only to suddenly find that you are watching a YouTube video of a very cute kitten? It’s easy to get off track. Well, that is symbolic of how our minds work.

Peter discourages checking email when it comes in. Instead he checks his every three hours and replies to all of them at once, which is faster. He says if you keep switching tasks, like constantly checking email, you lose valuable time and focus, which leads to memory loss and mind-wandering.

Peter’s last tip: “The best way not to be distracted by email is not to look at it, unless that is the thing you are doing—then do it and move on.”