Increase Focus With Meditation Part II
In last week’s blog post I wrote about how cell phones are rewiring our brain’s attention span to seek instant gratification. To counteract this rewiring, I recommended guided meditation with the Headspace app. In this week’s post, I will go over how meditation rewires the brain. As I wrote last week, the mind is similar to the body. If you stop training a muscle it will atrophy (become weaker) and so will the mind. As we age our mind and body break down at a faster rate. But we can slow this process down with exercise.
If You Don't Use It, You Lose It
Now, I am not just talking physical exercise, we must include some type of mental exercise too. After all, if you don’t use it, you will lose it.
In a previous post, I talked about meditation and how it helped improve my productivity as a trainer. Over the years I have heard that meditation can help increase focus and slow down aging. I became curious and wondered how meditation affected my brain.It turns out that meditation physically changes the brain by increasing its gray matter.
The brain has two types of matter: gray and white. According to Wikipedia, gray matter is responsible for the following: muscle control, and sensory perception such as seeing and hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control. While the white matter is responsible for connecting different regions of gray matter together.
Now, I don’t want you to think one is more important than another. Both regions play a crucial role in mental health. In fact, the open access peer-reviewed journal BMC Psychiatry found that adults with a generalized anxiety disorder had less white matter than healthy subjects (1). So, we can’t just try to strengthen our gray matter and leave out the white matter. Luckily, meditation strengthens both areas.
For many years scientists thought that you couldn't change the brain and the regions inside of it. But we now know that the brain is plastic and will adapt to the stimulus you give it. But the brain does weaken with age, losing its ability to focus on a task (2). So time is of the essence.
Can You Slow Down Aging?
Scientists from Emory University wanted to see whether or not meditation could slow down this mental decline. So they performed a study that compared 13 practitioners of Zen meditation versus 13 non-practitioners. When looking at brain images of the two they found that the meditators had increased levels of gray matter in the brain, especially in areas that are responsible for attention processing.
The authors stated, “While control subjects displayed the expected negative correlation of both gray matter volume and attentional performance with age, meditators did not show a significant correlation of either measure with age (2).” The authors concluded that meditation may have a neurotrophic effect on the brain and could potentially slow down the aging process (2).
Another study, done by the Department of Psychology at Emory University found similar results. The study included 14 healthy adults from local Atlanta meditation communities who have more than a year of meditation experience. The authors compared high experienced meditators versus low experienced meditators. The authors found the following, “Participants with more meditation experience exhibited increased connectivity within attentional networks, as well as between attentional regions and medial frontal regions.” The study shows that meditation may help maintain attention and improve the ability to disengage from distraction. (3) Granted, both studies have small sample sizes, so you have to take it with a grain of salt. However, I have also experienced these benefits.
Over the last four years, my focus and productivity have improved drastically. But remember, meditation is not about stopping your thoughts. The purpose is to learn how to become aware of thoughts and to not let them control you. Meditation will help you control your emotions instead of being controlled by them. It will teach you how to be a master, instead of a slave to your emotions. Meditation is an exercise for the mind, a skill that requires daily practice. So be patient and trust the process.
*You can get the headspace app and the 10-day challenge free at headspace.com, the Google Play Store, or the Apple App Store. (Seriously, give it a try.)