I have spent most of my life disregarding the idea of meditation. Here is what I thought it consisted of: sitting cross-legged, hands held up in front of you, clearing the mind and thinking about, well, nothing. Who has time for that? The perception I had of mediation as a relaxation technique was not nearly enough to silence me for an hour. But recently the concept of meditation has become infinitely more appealing, because I, for one, could use a boost in brain capacity and studies are starting to show that mindfulness meditation might be able to do just this.
A study at the University of California, Santa Barbara tested the connection between mindfulness and mind wandering and received promising results. The study consisted of two test groups, each tasked with maintaining a different two-week regimen aimed to improve test scores. Before starting the regimen, both groups were evaluated for working memory capacity using performance tests such as the reading comprehension section of a G.R.E. Following this initial evaluation, one group started to follow a nutrition program, and the other started a stress-reducing mindfulness-meditation program.
The nutrition program was an education-based program in which the test subjects were taught about healthy eating and kept a food diary for the two-week period. The mindfulness-meditation training program guided the subjects through the practice, requiring them to sit upright with crossed legs and a lowered gaze, while using breathing exercises to focus and transform thoughts and worries into “mental projections occurring in the present.”
After two weeks of these programs, each group was evaluated once again with a different version of the same test they took prior to starting their programs. While the results of the subjects in the nutrition program did not change, the study determined that those who had practiced mindfulness-mediation for two weeks improved their performance on the test. The average score increased from 460 to 520.
Professor of psychology at the University of Virginia explained the results, saying, “when you see these big effects, it may not be that you’ve really fundamentally changed how the mind works. But you have removed a stumbling block that was absorbing them.”
However, it won’t happen with short, un-sustained practice. Mindfulness requires one to, in addition to training, constantly incorporate it into their life. Janice Marturano, founder of the nonprofit Institute for Mindful Leadership, expanded on mindfulness in a New York Times article about the practice. She described it as “intentionally paying attention to the present nonjudgmentally.” And she emphasizes the importance of doing it consistently. For example, focusing on the taste of your toothpaste and the feeling of the bristles of your toothbrush while brushing your teeth, rather than thinking about your dinner plans. She also suggests that it is more effective the less you try and force it to be effective: “if you go into it with the idea of reducing stress, you’re working against the very thing you’re trying to attain, because you’re aiming toward a goal.”
So how can we apply this to our lives? Give it a try! Essentially, increasing mindfulness enables us to more completely focus on one thing at a time and therefore improve attention directed towards this thing. Training the mind to improve focus can decrease mind wandering, increase memory capacity, and help us to perform better on exams! With exam period coming up next month, it’s the perfect time to exercise your mind and try a different approach to studying. Don’t skip the flashcards and study guides, but spend some time preparing your mind to absorb, remember, and more completely understand all of the information. You just might be really happy that you did.