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It seems like everyone's looking for a way to boost brain function these days. Currently, estimates show that around 55 million people worldwide have been diagnosed with dementia, while 6 million children are diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)[*][*].
Meanwhile, college students and young professionals are clearing the shelves of the latest nootropics (AKA brain supplements), and the rest of the world seems to be running on caffeine to stay alert. It's clear that we are all in need of some cognitive support, but we may be overlooking a powerful remedy that's right under our noses.
Mindfulness and Cognitive Function
What Is Mindfulness Meditation?
As described by Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness meditation involves paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgment.
Practically speaking, this means that you choose an intention or object (such as your breath), become present with it (notice the rise and fall of each inhale and exhale), and not bring any judgment to it – or yourself.
The non-judgmental part is crucial, as our minds are always looking for a job, and when we aren't being productive or distracting ourselves, judgment tends to be one of the primary places our mind likes to go.
For instance, while focusing on your breath, you may find that you start wondering why your breathing is so shallow. Thoughts start to emerge like, "my breathing should be deeper; why is my breathing so shallow? What's going on with me that I can't just naturally take deep breaths?"
This is where the trouble starts because your mind has taken over and now you're no longer meditating on your breath – you're judging it.
Instead, you may notice that your breath is shallow, and just mentally observe "my breath is shallow in this moment," and then move on to the next breath without a second thought. This takes practice, and in many ways, it is the practice.
How Mindfulness Enhances Cognitive Health
Meditation improves cognitive health by physically altering the structure of your brain. Your brain is made up of a vast array of networks that signal to different areas and light up in response to certain stimuli. You can think of your brain architecture like an incredibly complex highway that sends various types of information and messages depending on what task you're working on and what type of sensory stimulus is coming in.
The layout of this highway will determine how fast you respond to stimuli, how easy it is to recall a memory, how flexible your thinking is, and more.
Research shows that mindfulness meditation acts like a construction crew that comes in to reorganize the highways in such a way that all information flows more efficiently. In doing so, it has been shown to improve several aspects of neurological health[*].
When it comes to cognition specifically, studies show that mindfulness meditation increases the functional connectivity among two brain regions that are associated with cognitive function – the parietal lobe and prefrontal cortex[*].
These two brain regions work together to create what is known as your executive function. Executive function is responsible for attention, working memory, awareness, flexible thinking, and learning.
But how does meditation instigate these neurological changes?
Researchers believe that it's the combination of present moment awareness and emotional acceptance that surfaces when you sit in a mindfulness practice. In other words, meditators are not just sitting in a serene, peaceful state, but rather working hard to maintain their target focus while simultaneously not becoming emotionally disturbed when their focus shifts (as it is naturally inclined to do)[*].
This is a very important distinction and wonderful news for all the meditators who feel they aren't getting benefits when their mind wanders. Mind-wandering is not only normal but it's expected. The benefit lies in your persistent intention to not react emotionally to your mind-wandering but instead gently returning your attention back to your object of focus (in this example, breath) with acceptance and grace.
The Research-backed Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation
If you ask anyone who practices mindfulness meditation regularly if it's benefited their cognitive and emotional state, they'll likely answer with a resounding "yes." With that being said, it never hurts to have some research to back up the anecdotal evidence that mindfulness improves our state of awareness and ability to learn.
Here are a handful of research-backed benefits that mindfulness meditation has been shown to encourage:
- In mild cognitive impairment (MCI), mindfulness has been shown to improve cognition, quality of life, and wellbeing. What's more, compared to non-meditators, people with MCI who practice mindfulness show less memory loss and fewer depressive symptoms[*][*].
- In adults with ADHD, mindfulness meditation improved emotional regulation[*].
- In children with ADHD, mindfulness meditation increased performance on all executive function tasks (including self-control, working memory, and task-switching)[*].
- Research examining the impact of mindfulness meditation in Parkinson's disease showed improvements in motor skills, potentially due to its stress-relieving impact[*].
- Research on long-time meditators shows increased cognitive flexibility and ability to pay attention when compared to non-meditators[*].
Many of the positive results that people experience from mindfulness come from making it a consistent practice. However, research also shows that even brief stints of mindfulness can improve working memory and executive function while reducing fatigue and anxiety[*].
A Simple Mindfulness Technique To Get You Started
A classic mindfulness meditation technique involves simply watching your breath.
- Sit comfortably on a meditation cushion or a chair, with your spine straight.
- Begin to notice the natural in-flow and out-flow of your breath. Do not manipulate by slowing it down or speeding it up – just pay attention to what is happening with your breath in this present moment.
- It may be helpful to put your attention on a physical cue like the feeling of air streaming out of your nose or the rise and fall of your chest or stomach.
- Remain non-judgmental as you simply notice each breath, staying close to each inhale and each exhale as if they are the only thing that is happening in your awareness.
- If your mind wanders (and it likely will), gently return your attention to your breath – being careful not to place judgment on yourself or your mind for wandering (that's its natural inclination, after all.)
- Continue for five to ten minutes.
Mindfulness meditation offers us a natural way to calm our minds and enhance our neural architecture. When you meditate, you allow your brain to rewire in a way that offers optimal processing and communication between areas of your brain that are crucial for cognitive function.
Through this gentle technique, you may find that a range of cognitive challenges are improved and, in some cases, even resolved. What's more, consistent practice can promote feelings of wellbeing and calm, which ultimately result in a more peaceful state of mind, and state of being.