Raymond Dalio is an American investor. Jack Dorsey is the founder of Twitter. Both have something in common — apart from being billionaires that is.
They both take time out to meditate each day.
And they’re not alone. Many successful people practice meditation. In fact, it’s catching on big time with a large number of Americans. Between 2012 and 2017 the number of devotees increased threefold.
One researcher thinks this is admirable, but from a scientific perspective, meditation has been under-researched. “It’s time we start looking at it through a more rigorous lens,” said Jeff Lin, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Michigan State University.
I’m not sure if I agree – there have actually been quite a few studies on meditation. Maybe he was just trying to generate buzz about his own research. So let’s see what he and his colleagues found…
Although a growing number of people engage in the practice, Mr. Lin says its popularity “is outpacing what science can prove in terms of effects and benefits.”
So he and other psychologists decided to carry out an experiment, enrolling 206 female university students who had never meditated before in the largest study of its kind to date.
They chose to test a little-known form of mindfulness meditation called open monitoring.
Instead of making a particular object or one’s breathing the target of attention, as in more common forms of meditation, in this technique the focus is on thoughts, feelings and sensations as they unfold in the mind and body. The idea is to try to understand where the mind is traveling without attachment or judgment.
Half the students were taken through a single, 20-minute open monitoring meditation session. This was followed by a computer quiz during which they wore an EEG to measure brain activity while they gave their answers.
The other half acted as the control group. Instead of being taken through the meditative practice, they listened to a talk about how to learn a second language.
Mr. Lin explained how the experiment worked.
Improves Cognitive Performance
“The EEG can measure brain activity at the millisecond level, so we got precise measures of neural activity right after mistakes compared to correct responses.
“A certain neural signal occurs about half a second after an error called the error positivity, which is linked to conscious error recognition.”
Dr. Jason Moser, associate professor of psychology, and one of the study authors further explained:
“That brain wave is really indexing how conscious you are of your mistake — how much you’re really making sense of it and using that information going forward.”
The result of their experiment impressed the psychologists. The signal was boosted among the meditators compared to the controls. They realized they were wrong almost as soon as they uttered their answer.
This suggests meditation can help us improve attention, detect and register mistakes more deeply, and respond to them more quickly.
Lin said, “it’s amazing to me that we were able to see how one session of a guided meditation can produce changes to brain activity in non-meditators.”
In his view, meditation practice could help us become less error prone in daily life so long as we practice regularly.
Dr. Moser added: “These findings are a strong demonstration of what just 20 minutes of meditation can do to enhance the brain’s ability to detect and pay attention to mistakes.
“It makes us feel more confident in what mindfulness meditation might really be capable of for performance and daily functioning right there in the moment.”
He believes that meditation “is probably a person’s best bet to improve cognitive performance.”
If you’re interested in trying out the same meditation session that the students were guided through, go to https://soundcloud.com/ucsdmindfulness/20-min-seated-meditation-by-steve-hickman