Science proves benefits of meditation in learning

An exciting article published on The New York Times on April 3rd, 2013, explains the benefits of meditation applied to studying and retention of information in our brains. This amazing article, which I cite textually below, is originally written by Jan Hoffman.

This piece is an excellent complement to another article previously cited in this blog: Sherry Baker’s work “How Meditation Changes Brain Rhythms to Sooth Pain and Depression“. I highly recommend reading both in full – the depth of findings from both pieces of research is simply fascinating.

 

How Meditation Might Boost Your Test Scores

By JAN HOFFMAN

Mindfulness meditation, the ancient and flourishing practice that increases awareness of random thoughts and redirects attention to the present moment, has been used to manage stress, depression and even chronic pain. But can it improve test scores?

 

StudyResearchers in the department of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who have been studying the relationship between mindfulness and mind-wandering, or the tendency to let our minds drift away on “task-unrelated thoughts,” as it is referred to in academic literature, sought to find out.

“We had already found that mind-wandering underlies performance on a variety of tests, including working memory capacity and intelligence,” said Michael D. Mrazek, a graduate student working with Jonathan W. Schooler, a professor of psychology at the university who studies the impacts and implications of mind-wandering and mindfulness. The higher the working memory, or an individual’s ability to keep in mind chunks of information and also use them, the better students tend to perform on reading comprehension tests.

Researchers disagree about the extent to which an individual’s working memory capacity can be enhanced. But in a study published last month in the journal Psychological Science, the Santa Barbara researchers found that after a group of undergraduates went through a two-week intensive mindfulness training program, their mind-wandering decreased and their working memory capacity improved. They also performed better on a reading comprehension test — a section from the Graduate Record Examination, or G.R.E.

For the study, the researchers enrolled 48 University of California undergraduates in a study intended, they told them, to improve cognitive performance. Each student was evaluated for working memory capacity, mind-wandering and performance on a G.R.E. reading comprehension section.

Then, half the group was randomly assigned to take part in a nutrition program, in which they were educated about healthy eating and asked to keep a daily food diary.

The others took a training that resembled the standard mindfulness-based stress reduction program, which typically meets once a week for eight sessions. In the Santa Barbara regimen, students instead met four days a week for two weeks and were not required to devote as much formal practice outside of class.

But in the main, the class invoked the secular pillars of the practice, including sitting in an upright posture with legs crossed and gaze lowered, breathing exercises and “minimizing the distracting quality of past and future concerns by reframing them as mental projections occurring in the present.”

After two weeks, the students were re-evaluated for mind-wandering and working memory capacity and given another version of the G.R.E. reading comprehension section.

The nutrition group’s results did not change.

The group that took mindfulness training, however, mind-wandered less and performed better on tests of working memory capacity and reading comprehension. For example, before the training, their average G.R.E. verbal score was 460. Two weeks later, it was 520.

Richard J. Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has studied brain function in long-term and novice mindful meditators, offered this analogy: “You can improve the signal-to-noise ratio by reducing the noise. Decreasing mind-wandering is doing just that.”

Other professors of cognitive psychology thought the study was well done, although based on a small sample, with results that have yet to be replicated.

“A type of training that can help one avoid susceptibility to worries, or other sources of mind-wandering, very well could improve performance,” said Nelson Cowan, a professor at the University of Missouri who specializes in the study of working memory capacity and attention, in an e-mail message.

Daniel T. Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “When Can You Trust the Experts? How to Tell Good Science From Bad in Education,” said that “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.”

The Santa Barbara researchers have also recently worked with local high school students to see whether the results can be repeated using the SAT. But psychology professors like David Z. Hambrick of Michigan State University questioned how long the effects of a two-week training program would last.

Professor Davidson, who has studied Buddhist monks who have practiced meditation for 34,000 hours over the course of their lives, said, “If you have people who are out of shape and then do two weeks of physical exercise, you’ll see some benefit. But if they stop exercising, the benefits won’t persist.”

The original article is available on this link.

Meteors and reality checks: Our Universe is very vast, and very humbling

The news of asteroid 2012 DA14 expected to approach Earth closer than any celestial object recorded ever by NASA would have been enough, but the Universe had prepared for us a much more powerful reminder of our fragility as a species: A meteor crashing against our planet. An event that even the most seasoned astronomers at NASA and ESA did not foresee, and one that therefore caught mankind by surprise. But really, is there anything we could have done to prevent it? The answer is likely a resounding no. Is there anything we can do to prevent this from happening in the future? Perhaps not, although there is indeed room to improve ourselves and our species from the lessons learned out of this phenomenon.

Analyzed from a strictly social point of view, the event is tragic and its painful impact is noted: Thousands of people resulted injured as a result of the crash of the meteor in the nearby city of Chelyabinsk, in Russia, where damages were calculated in over $33 million dollars. And all that we humans could do about it was to sit, watch, and repair the damages after the event.

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Photo: Tumblr

This rare event, however, is more than an isolated astronomical incident. If we go a step further and put the incident in a philosophical perspective, we will discover that the message is much more powerful that the only impact of the meteor itself: It is a powerful, direct, and clear reminder that there is a Universe out there. But that Universe is not an empty space unrelated to us, and we are not rulers over the Universe. All the opposite: We are part of this powerful Universe, a magnificent Universe with the ability to damage us or even make us vanish in a whim.

The sudden crash of this meteor offers a great wake-up call for us to reconsider our lives from both a personal and civilization-level perspective. What is our role in this Universe? What do we want to achieve during our relatively short existence here? What are we doing to make ourselves better?

There is another important message to take away from this event: This meteor came to remind us that Earth is just a planet, perhaps a vulnerable one, yet our protective home. Are we respecting Earth as such, or are we too busy abusing it for the sake of money and egoism? Are we working together as a species for the shared well being of mankind, or are we a rather fragmented civilization thirsty for power and dominance over other humans? What, exactly, are we looking for as a species?

Before taking on the massive task of finding our goal as a species, it will certainly take some time for each of us to think about our own personal roles in society, and to discover our potential to become better individuals – not with the intent of being better than others, but to be better towards our fellow humans. Hopefully that way, someday, our societal mindset will focus on the single goal of making of mankind and Earth better places. Who knows, maybe that is our reason to exist in this powerful Universe.

Regina Brett: The 45 lessons life taught me

Back in May 28, 2012, a local Cleveland newspaper named “The Plain Dealer” posted a column by Regina Brett. The article was named “The 45 lessons life has taught me and 5 to grow on“. Her column, which I transcribe textually below (and which is available via the link provided) is full of wisdom and inspiration for us to enjoy a more meaningful life, and to empower ourselves to take control over aspects of our own persona. It is worth sharing and remembering these simple suggestions.

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Regina Brett’s 45 life lessons and 5 to grow on


By Regina Brett, The Plain Dealer

 

To celebrate growing older, I once wrote the 45 lessons life taught me.

It is the most-requested column I’ve ever written. My odometer rolls over to 50 this week, so here’s an update:

1. Life isn’t fair, but it’s still good.

2. When in doubt, just take the next small step.

3. Life is too short to waste time hating anyone.

4. Don’t take yourself so seriously. No one else does.

5. Pay off your credit cards every month.

6. You don’t have to win every argument. Agree to disagree.

7. Cry with someone. It’s more healing than crying alone.

8. It’s OK to get angry with God. He can take it.

9. Save for retirement starting with your first paycheck.

10. When it comes to chocolate, resistance is futile.

11. Make peace with your past so it won’t screw up the present.

12. It’s OK to let your children see you cry.

13. Don’t compare your life to others’. You have no idea what their journey is all about.

14. If a relationship has to be a secret, you shouldn’t be in it.

15. Everything can change in the blink of an eye. But don’t worry; God never blinks.

16. Life is too short for long pity parties. Get busy living, or get busy dying.

17. You can get through anything if you stay put in today.

18. A writer writes. If you want to be a writer, write.

19. It’s never too late to have a happy childhood. But the second one is up to you and no one else.

20. When it comes to going after what you love in life, don’t take no for an answer.

21. Burn the candles, use the nice sheets, wear the fancy lingerie. Don’t save it for a special occasion. Today is special.

22. Overprepare, then go with the flow.

23. Be eccentric now. Don’t wait for old age to wear purple.

24. The most important sex organ is the brain.

25. No one is in charge of your happiness except you.

26. Frame every so-called disaster with these words: “In five years, will this matter?”

27. Always choose life.

28. Forgive everyone everything.

29. What other people think of you is none of your business.

30. Time heals almost everything. Give time time.

31. However good or bad a situation is, it will change.

32. Your job won’t take care of you when you are sick. Your friends will. Stay in touch.

33. Believe in miracles.

34. God loves you because of who God is, not because of anything you did or didn’t do.

35. Whatever doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger.

36. Growing old beats the alternative – dying young.

37. Your children get only one childhood. Make it memorable.

38. Read the Psalms. They cover every human emotion.

39. Get outside every day. Miracles are waiting everywhere.

40. If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back.

41. Don’t audit life. Show up and make the most of it now.

42. Get rid of anything that isn’t useful, beautiful or joyful.

43. All that truly matters in the end is that you loved.

44. Envy is a waste of time. You already have all you need.

45. The best is yet to come.

46. No matter how you feel, get up, dress up and show up.

47. Take a deep breath. It calms the mind.

48. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

49. Yield.

50. Life isn’t tied with a bow, but it’s still a gift.

Photo: Gus Chan / The Plain Dealer

The Power of “Hello”

Little acts of kindness can make a world of a difference to people.

Throughout our lives, every day, people experience a range of emotions. Some days we are happy, some days we are excited, some others we are just content or peaceful. At times, we may experience a wave of emotions at a given time – which are usually a result of either external factors (people, work, school, etc) or a reflection of our physical-mental balance.

Likewise, we may sometimes experience emotions that are more difficult or negative in nature. We may feel anger, frustration, boredom, or simply indifference towards our daily routines. It is perfectly normal to experience a wave of emotions because, at the end of the day, those emotions are part of what make us human.

When we start our day, as we start interacting with people, it is sometimes difficult to determine what kind of mood they are experiencing – and sometimes, it is very easy to tell.

What can we do when we know that a person is experiencing difficult emotions? Is having, for example, a difficult day full with anxiousness?

I believe in what I call “the power of hello”, which means the power and significance that a greeting can convey onto a person, especially when they are experiencing negative or tough times. By saying hello to someone, we acknowledge their presence in our surroundings and break the ice. It is also a way to demonstrate our respect and goodwill towards them.

The effects that a simple greeting can have in a person, particularly one experiencing a difficult day, is almost magical. It can indeed make someone’s day better, and it can open our doors to bonding better relationships with our fellow humans And all it takes, is only to say the magical word to someone “hello”.

We all have the power to convey positivity onto people’s lives, and it starts by doing very little and often overlooked acts of kindness – like a simple greeting.

 

Preparing mentally to success vs. fantasizing: Where is the line?

There is no question that success is attainable and within reach of anybody who pursues it. But what does it take to be successful on our goals?

On very general terms, when pursuing success we are typically looking to achieve certain goals or steps to ultimately conquer an objective. Also in general terms, achieving success is not a simple task; it takes a lot of hard work, concentration, and vision to reach our goals. Granted, the way to achieve success cannot be described as a cooking recipe, where well predefined steps must be rigorously complied in order to obtain the desired results for our endeavours. Nevertheless, we can identify certain constants that usually lead to the way of success.

Some of those constants have to do with our mental and physical preparedness to embrace that success. They have to do with our attitudes and behaviours to face challenges and with the degree of tolerance we have to adapt to situations outside of our comfort zone in order to go forward on our path to completion. Moreover, since success is not a one-time only pursuit but rather an ongoing matter, those constants also have to do with the degree of maintenance we provide to that state of success, and with our mental and emotional state to keep the right attitudes in place. Positive thinking is a crucial ingredient before, during, and after reaching goals.

Whereas positive thinking and goal setting are without question positive practices, there is a fine and dangerous line that has to be noted between positive thinking  and fantasizing.

What is fantasizing? One of the dictionary definitions of the word fantasy describes them as “the power or process of creating especially unrealistic or improbable mental images in response to psychological need (…); a mental image or a series of mental images (as a daydream) so created”.

The definitions above would suggest that a person’s potential to achieve success is limited from the get go, which is an arguable point. We like to think (and in fact, we believe) that a person’s potential is as big as the magnitude of the objectives they set for themselves; however there are two points where both the dictionary definition and our understanding of success viability converge: on the words ‘unrealistic’ and ‘improbable’.

For an endeavour to be successful, it has to have a reality check where the individual must make sure that the goals they set for themselves are in fact attainable. For example, let’s analyse the case of a person who decides to undertake a new years resolution where they will lose weight. Is that an actual goal or a fantasy?

While the achieving success on the goal of losing body weight is a perfectly attainable goal in principle, the vagueness with which the goal is pictured makes it look more like a fantasy. Is the person aware of their own physical and mental state to pursue this goal? Do they have what they need?

In order to mitigate risks of pursuing a fantasy rather than an actual goal, certain professionals (of very different specialties) recommend the use of the SMART approach: For a goal to be likely to be achieved, it must be:

  • Specific: How does the person plan to lose weight? By eating less, by working out more, or by undergoing a liposuction surgery? Is there going to be a combination of factors that determine this decision?
  • Measurable: How much weight will the person lose to consider the endeavour successful? Would 5 kg. suffice? Will 50 kg. suffice?
  • Attainable: If the person decides that they will lose 1 kg, is it attainable? If they decide to lose 60 kg, is that attainable? Is it viable considering their body build?
  • Realistic: Does the person have a positive attitude to face this challenge? Is their willpower tuned up to keep up with the challenge?
  • Time-framed: How long will it take for the person to lose weight? If they are losing 10 kg, will a week suffice? Will 6 months suffice?

Having considered those points, for a person to pursue a goal where they will “lose 10 kilos of weight within the next 6 months by jogging 5 km every day and eating more veggies” sounds more likely to be a successful endeavour than just daydreaming about losing weight and hoping for the best.

All of the above does not mean that we should refrain from dreaming high and fighting for our dreams. It is healthy to face uncertainty and evolve as our circumstances change, and we have within ourselves the power to reach high. But having a route map drafted can be of huge benefit to ensure that our road to success does not get lost in the land of fantasy.