It might have started as part of religious practice, but meditation has become a secular way to improve the way we work, think and learn. (Photo of a Buddha in Dhyana by Wellcome Images, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
I admit that I’m biased toward the benefits of meditation.
In college, I started doing yoga nidra, or “sleep meditation,” a program that psychologists use to decrease stress in active and veteran military members who suffer from PTSD. My logic was that if it can help soldiers suffer less from the stress and memories of warfare, then it can certainly help me through the final exam combat zone. Not only was I right, but it also calmed the stomach aches I suffered my entire senior year.
But meditation goes further than just decreasing stress. Chief Learning Officer’s January 2015 features a case study on software company SAP’s use of the Search Inside Yourself meditation program to increase mindfulness in its employees and improve business functions. It’s something everyone from the dorm to the corner office should be doing to improve productivity and learning capabilities, and I can back that statement up with science.
Sara Lazar, an associate research scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor at Harvard University, found that meditation affects the brain’s capability to focus by changing its biological composition — particularly in the hippocampus and posterior cingulate cortex, or PCC.
Time for some context. The hippocampus is not where large water-dwelling mammals attend college, but rather the part of the brain that helps with associative learning by monitoring which neurons fire at the same time. The PCC puts the brain in default mode when it’s not focused on anything, like when stop thinking about this blog post and start imagining Hippopotamus U. Blame an over-active PCC for your short attention span and wandering mind.
Or don’t blame it, because there’s a way to get it to settle down while also getting the hippocampus in shape. In 2011, Lazar’s studies looked at the brain composition of people who had never meditated before and how it changed after they had gone through an 8-week practice. The final pictures showed more gray matter — functional brain material — in the hippocampus and PCC.
“But Kate,” you interject. “Doesn’t that leave the brain in an attention-span stalemate because the PCC is just as active as the hippocampus?”
Astute thought, reader. I wondered the same thing.
Sometimes in brain structure, more structure means more activity, and sometimes it means less activity, Lazar said. The more PCC structure means there are more inhibitory neurons turning it off.
Meditators have an easier time focusing on their work thanks to more neurons acting as PCC Police. They also make better learners because of the increased activity in the hippocampus, which means the brain remembers associations better, also known as learning.
Although there’s not a clear reason why meditation has these influences on brain structure, Lazar offered this explanation: “So many people think mediation means sitting there and not doing anything. It’s not just relaxation. It’s an active process that’s engaging certain circuits, and those circuits are changing as a result of practice.”