We’d all like to think better, but few of us have the time or desire to, say, spend years in a Tibetan monastery learning to meditate. Past studies have shown that such extended training can indeed improve cognitive functioning. Remarkable new research shows that just four days of meditating for 20 minutes per day produced significant benefits as measured by a battery of tests of cognition.

The experiment involved 63 student volunteers, 49 of whom completed the experiment. Participants were randomly assigned in approximately equivalent numbers to one of two groups, one of which received the meditation training while the other group listened for equivalent periods of time to a book (J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit) being read aloud.

Prior to and following the meditation and reading sessions, the participants were subjected to a broad battery of behavioral tests assessing mood, memory, visual attention, attention processing, and vigilance.

Both groups performed equally on all measures at the beginning of the experiment. Both groups also improved following the meditation and reading experiences in measures of mood, but only the group that received the meditation training improved significantly in the cognitive measures. The meditation group scored consistently higher averages than the reading/listening group on all the cognitive tests and as much as ten times better on one challenging test that involved sustaining the ability to focus, while holding other information in mind. [From Science Daily – Brief Meditative Exercise Helps Cognition.]

Fadel Zeidan, a post-doc at Wake Forest University, is the primary researcher. The findings were published in the April 2, 2010 issue of Consciousness and Cognition, and were presented at the annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society earlier this month.

The subjects who received the meditation training performed particularly well on timed tests. One test required participants to remember if a particular stimulus had been received two steps earlier. A correct answer allowed the participant to continue, but the speed of stimuli was increased, making each step more difficult. The non-meditation subjects averaged only a single correct answer, while the meditation-trained group averaged ten. That’s an amazing ten-time improvement in a relatively difficult test.

These findings sound like a bogus infomercial that promises ripped abs and a sculpted physique with six minutes of light exercise a day, but the work appears to be rigorous. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to set aside twenty minutes daily and see what happens. Non-pharmaceutical cognitive enhancement may be easier than we thought.

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