It’s official. Meditation is in. If you're searching for a brain upgrade, then you’re interested in meditation. The human brain changes in response to what you do with it, a feature called neuroplasticity. Just like running improves endurance and lifting weights improves strength, meditation improves your mental performance. It boosts your attentional control, filtering and memory. And, not just the memory you use to remember who shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Meditation improves the memory consolidation needed to learn movement patterns. It even changes brain structure by making the cortex thicker and denser which may be particularly important for staying sharp as we age.
No longer do you need a oneway ticket to Tibet and three years off the grid to get these benefits. The barriers stopping newbies from developing a great meditation practice are gone. There are a number of great resources including guided meditation apps like Headspace and 10% Happier. But all you really need is an open mind.
Meditation is an ancient art and there are several different styles. Different styles induce different brain states which means they have different effects on your brain. One style might lend itself to improving attention whereas another might help to eliminate reactionary brain responses. Broadly speaking various styles can be described in terms of these two general approaches. Focused attention and open monitoring.
In this style the meditator focuses their attention on a single thing. That focus could take many forms. It could be visual focus on an object, a candle flame for example. It could be auditory focus on a rhythm. It could be focus applied to a part of your body. Or it could be focus on a mantra that you repeat in monk-like fashion during your session. Your mantra might be “relax” or “release” or “become the wise ape”.
Focused attention may also called single point meditation or Samatha. It is often useful for beginners because there is something to do during the session. Something for your mind to latch onto. Beginners often start by concentrating on the sensations and action of the breath. When you lose focus (which is going to happen) your job is to gently return focus to the breath. Let us stop here and note that losing focus does not mean you, the meditator, are failing. In fact, it is all part of the process. When you engage your brain with this type of meditation you are challenging your executive function. Specifically those areas of the prefrontal cortex that run your brain from the top down. Every time you bring that lost focus back to the target it’s like lifting another weight or running another mile. Your brain will adapt and become less likely to lose focus over time. In this study meditators showed changes in brain electrical activity (EEG) and they reduced their error rates on reaction tests. This was especially true when the subjects were given conflicting information and their executive function had to step in and figure out what to do. The meditators made less errors even though their reaction times were unchanged. Which means their meditation practice improved cognitive performance NOT by making their brains faster but by dialing their executive control to eleven.
If focused attention is like a presidential executive order then open monitoring is grass roots activism. Open monitoring engages the bottom-up processing of simultaneous information streams and employs automated reactions. This is the system that gives you awareness of the world around you and reacts in automated ways. For example if you jump due to a loud noise, or grimace when you see a food you don’t like. In open monitoring meditation one sits quietly and seeks to enter a state of non-judgemental awareness. Here is a useful analogy. You, the meditator, are sitting on a riverbank and any of the sights and sounds in your external environment, or the thoughts, feelings and worries of your internal environment, are the river that flows by. Your job is to dispassionately let them pass without reaction or judgement. This strategy is sometimes called mindfulness meditation or Vipassana. When meditators experienced in Vipassana were exposed to audio tones they showed decreased automated reactivity measured on EEG.
Start your brain upgrade with these mediation styles. You don’t have pick just one. It is helpful to start out with focused attention and then, when you can flex your mighty prefrontal cortex, integrate open monitoring styles.