It’s that time of the semester when everything is going to hell. But I refuse to not post consistently. Science has a couple of conventions when writing. The following post got a B+, and I will note where I went wrong.
It is common knowledge that extensive mediation training improves cognitive abilities. Whether it’s a Buddhist monk on their life path, a middle aged man embarking on a three-month eleven hours per day intensive mediation training stint, or a yogi taking an eight week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction(MBSR) course, long-term mindfulness meditation practice increases executive brain functioning and attentiveness. Although extensive research has explored the effects of intensive mediation training, the benefits, if there are any, of brief mindfulness meditation training have not been fully explored. Zeidan and his colleagues explored whether brief mediation will have a similar beneficial effects on the mood and cognitive abilities as auditory listening to reading or be more similar to intensive mediation.
The researchers had the participants take several cognitive-ability tests to prior their four 20 minute sessions of either meditation training or listening to a recorded book ‘Lord of the Rings’. Participants were all college-aged with a median age of 20 and had had no prior mediation experience. In this experiment, 63 college aged students with a median age of 20 from the University of North Carolina were selected. They were volunteers partaking in this experiment to fulfill their psychology class requirements. They claimed that they had no prior experience in mediation, but were interested in learning. The racial and ethnic demographics broke down as follows: 61% white, 25% black, 2% asian, 4% biracial, native american and hispanic; similar to the racial makeup of America,and 56% female in the control situation while the mediation sessions were 63% female. Participants were assigned to their respective groups by the week they signed up for the experiment. Fourteen participants did not complete the introductory protocol and their data was not included in the final results. From the 49 participants remaining, 24 were assigned to the meditation group and 25 to the control.
After obtaining consent forms, participants a gauntlet of mood and memory tasks to compare to the final results. These tests were the Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory, the Profile of Mood States, the State Anxiety Inventory, the CES-D in random order, the Symbol Digit Modalities Test, the backwards/forward digit span recall test, the Controlled Oral Word Association Test, and the computer adaptive two-back task in random order. At the completion of all four sessions, the same tests were readministered.
The brief mediation group was trained by a veteran facilitator of ten years that trained them in Shamatha skills. They were to concentrate on breathing deeply and let go of any thoughts they pondered or sensations they felt. They were instructed to “just be” for 20 minutes. After every session, they were asked if they felt like they had been able to mediate for the full time. All participants said yes for all four sessions. The control group also performed a relaxing activity by listening to JRR Tolkein’s Hobbit in similar sized groups on a compact disc. The story was played in chronological order, from beginning to wherever the four session landed in 80 minutes.They were expected to turn off their cell phones and any electronics, and sit quietly and listen to the audio book. While listening, a research assistant continually assess their attentiveness. Both experimental conditions were effective at improving mood, however only brief mediation had significant cognitive benefits with improvements in all cognitive tasks tested across the board with p values as low as 0.01(Zeidan et al.). Brief meditation training reduced fatigue and anxiety and increased mindfulness.
Although Zeidan’s results are promising, this experiment was far from perfect. It was only performed on college aged students, and as the paper itself states, it cannot assume that the benefits of brief mediation can be drawn to older adults or children. It also doesn’t properly define what “previous experience” means in the essence of this paper. Does it mean that a study hasn’t taken a class that involves mediation? Has never prayed, or preformed concentration tasks? In addition to that, it would have been useful to have a music sample and an aerobic exercise sample to compare to the control. Music has been shown to cause a dopamine boost which could be the biological beginning of the increases in cognitive ability, while aerobic exercise has been proven to increase the rate of neurogenesis in adult mammalian brains. In fact, listening to classical music would have been a more equal match as a control as it would measure attentiveness without using the systems of language, just as the mediation task does by session 2. Further exercises should try and account for the biological basis for the increase in cognitive abilities. However, I do think that the researchers did an excellent job choosing their sample as it is close to the population demographics of America.
This research paper drew me in right away because it acts as strong evidence that even minimal self-care can improve a person’s mental health. Articles about how to improve the human mind intrigue me. I’ve previously read papers about neurogenesis and prayer, but have yet to read a paper that so succinctly expressed how by its method that the general public could benefit from an increase in ‘brain power’. I was also pulled in by the age range of the participants as I could easily digest the benefits of brief mediation for the sake of an increase in cognitive abilities. As a college student who wants to improve their GPA and lower their stress levels on a college student budget, being able to mediate for short periods of time and have significant changes is heartening. But it’s not only good for college students. Younger students can use mediation to train them to handle their emotions while also increasing their concentration. I look forward to reading a similar paper.