Memory Maxmizers: Meditation & Cognitive Efficiency; Mental Exercise & Acuity

Here’s the latest research to help you keep your brain sharp.

MEDITATE TO INCREASE YOUR COGNITIVE EFFICIENCY

Learning a relaxation technique called mindfulness meditation may help you rein in the tendency for the mind to wander, and lead to improvements in fundamental cognitive functioning. That’s the conclusion of a study comparing the working memory, fluid intelligence, and other cognitive abilities of college students trained in the practice of mindfulness meditation for two weeks with the abilities of similar students who were trained in nutrition for the same time period. Measures of cognitive performance before and after the training session revealed a 16 percentile-point increase in scores on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) among students who learned mindfulness meditation, in which practitioners focus on the present moment and try to ignore interrupting thoughts and perceptions. The improvement roughly translates into the difference between a C and an A on the test. Participants who received instruction in nutrition experienced no change in their test performance, according to a report on the study published online March 28, 2013 in the journal Psychological Science. “Our results suggest that cultivating mindfulness is an effective and efficient technique for improving cognitive function, with wide-reaching consequences,” the researchers concluded. To practice mindfulness meditation:

  • Find a quiet place where you will be undisturbed.
  • Sit comfortably with a straight back, either in a chair or on a cushioned surface on the floor with your legs crossed in front of you.
  • Close your eyes, or leave them open with your gaze softly directed slightly downward a few inches in front of your nose.
  • Sit calmly, concentrating on taking deep, natural breaths, and bringing your attention back to your breathing when your mind wanders.
  • Notice any thoughts or feelings as they arise; then bring your attention back to your breathing.
  • After 20 minutes or so, allow your attention to return to your environment, look around you, and gradually return to normal activities.

MENTAL EXERCISE LEADS TO MENTAL ACUITY

Yet another study has added to evidence that challenging your brain can help keep you sharp as you grow older. In a review of clinical trials testing the effects of strategies to help preserve mental function with age—such as dietary supplements, vitamins, hormone therapy, drugs, and physical and cognitive activities—researchers reported in the April 15, 2013 online issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal that only mental exercise was significantly associated with improved performance on cognitive tests.

After looking at the results of 32 randomized, controlled trials comparing cognitive decline in healthy participants 65 years of age and older who received a particular intervention with a similar group who did not receive the intervention, the scientists reported that only the three studies assessing the effects of mental training yielded positive results in all instances. Results were weak or mixed for other interventions, such as exercise or omega-3 fatty acids. In one large 2006 trial involving 2,800 people, participants were assigned either to a control group, or to 10 one-hour training sessions involving exercises designed to improve memory, reasoning, or information processing speed. Five years later, participants who had received the training performed better than those who received no training on tests measuring the mental activity in which they were trained. Because none of the mental training activities covered in the review are available to consumers, the study’s lead author recommends that his patients “…remain mentally and cognitively active as long as possible in whatever way is stimulating to them.”

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