College is an invigorating world for most students, a time without parental restraints and a period in life when new experiences occur on a regular basis. But this backdrop can also be a barrier to classroom concentration and attention.
New research, published in the journal Mindfulness, suggests practicing meditation before class can help students focus and lead to better grades.
In the study, George Mason University professor Dr. Robert Youmans and University of Illinois doctoral student Jared Ramsburg conducted three classroom experiments at a California university to see if meditation might help students focus better and retain information.
Researchers randomly selected students for basic meditation instructions before a lecture and discovered that the students who meditated before the lecture scored better on a subsequent quiz than students who did not meditate.
In one experiment, the meditation even predicted which students passed and which students failed the quiz.
Interestingly, the researchers also showed that the effect of the meditation was stronger in classes where more freshman students were enrolled, showing that meditation might have a bigger effect on freshman students.
“One difficulty for researchers who study meditation is that the supposed benefits of meditation do not always replicate across different studies or populations, and so we have been trying to figure out why.
“This data from this study suggest that meditation may help students who might have trouble paying attention or focusing. Sadly, freshmen classes probably contain more of these types of students than senior courses because student populations who have difficulty self-regulating are also more likely to leave the university,” said Youmans, an assistant professor of psychology.
Youmans believes that self-reflection might therefore have an important place in freshmen seminars or institutions with high attrition rates.
A significant finding from the exercise was a marked improvement in student scores after only six minutes of written meditation exercises — and the researchers believe with more extensive training and coaching that the results could improve.
“Personally, I have found meditation to be helpful for mental clarity, focus and self-discipline,” said Ramsburg, lead author of the study and a practicing Buddhist.
“I think that if mindfulness can improve mental clarity, focus and self-discipline, then it might be useful in a variety of settings and for a variety of goals.”
Youmans also suggests that, in theory, other forms of active self-reflection such as prayer, taking long walks or even just taking the time to mindfully plan out your day in the morning could have some of the same positive effects as meditation.
“Basically, becoming just a little bit more mindful about yourself and your place in the world might have a very important, practical benefit — in this case, doing better in college.”
Corey Schink found forgiveness in the form of his late stepfather who appeared to him in a dream.
“My stepdad Jim was a big bear of a man,” the Smithland, Iowa, native recalled. “We got into a fight right before he died.”
Schink carried that guilt for months, along with feelings of aimlessness in life.
One night, his stepfather appeared in a dream, telling Schink that he would be all right and that all was forgiven.
“It was as if a wave of emotions flooded over me,” Schink said. “I don’t think I would’ve gotten to that point without Eiriu Eolas.”
An Irish Gaelic term that means “growth of knowledge,” Eiriu Eolas (pronounced Aye-Roo Oh-lahs) is a breathing and meditation program which combines modern neuroscience with ancient wisdom.
The attributes of Eiriu Eolas is that it detoxifies one mind and body while liberating one’s heart.
Discovering the yoga-influenced meditation on the Internet, Schink credits Eiriu Eolas with turning his life around.
“I wasn’t a very happy person before Eiriu Eolas,” he admitted. “But within six months, I was able to turn my life around.”
Currently, a Briar Cliff University social work major, Schink is also a Eiriu Eolas-certified trainer. He will be teaching the program as part of four-week Western Iowa Tech Community College’s Institute for Lifelong Learning, starting in April.
Explaining Eiriu Eolas, he said it’s a way for a person to relax from the stresses of everyday life while working through past emotional and psychological trauma.
Through a series of progressive breathing exercises, it will eventually allow a person to release repressed emotions and mental blockages while rejuvenating and detoxifying one’s mind and body.
“Eiriu Eolas moves the barriers that stand between you and true peace, happiness,” Schink said. “Ultimately, it help you to achieve a successful, fulfilling life.”
Since learning the meditation, Schink said he’s able to enjoy life to its fullest.
“You know how carefree you felt as a kid?” he asked. “That’s how I feel all the time.”
This is why Schink said he enjoys teaching Eiriu Eolas to newcomers of all ages.
“No matter your age and fitness level, you can benefit from Eiriu Eolas,” he contends. “You’re learning how to breath again, beginning with a technique called pipe breathing before graduating to bioenergetic breathing, which allows a person to dig deep into his emotions.”
Which is important to Schink, since he’s interested in becoming a social worker, counseling at-risk kids.
“Through Eiriu Eolas, I’ve been able to strengthen my inner voice while silencing my inner critic,” he said. “It’s taught me to stay connected with my emotions and liberating me from the burdens that were keeping me down.”
Schink can’t help but smile.
“I am now living the life that I want to live,” he said.
What: Eiriu Eolas: The Growth of Knowledge meditation, taught by certified trainer Corey Schink
When: 6:30 p.m. Apr. 16, 23, 30 and May 7
Where: Room L416, Advance Sciences Building, Western Iowa Tech Community College, Sioux City
Contact: Institute for Lifelong Learning, (712) 274-8733
Stressed about finals? Try sitting and meditating. Although this doesn’t sound as appealing as drinking or sitting in front of the television to relax, there are actually many benefits to simply sitting in silence.
An article in Psychiatry Research presented a study that found that people who meditated for a mere 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an important area in the brain for learning and memory. So although you may think you are wasting time by just sitting around and not doing any homework, think again. Meditating actually helps with learning all those pesky flashcards you prepared. Additionally, the findings concluded that there was a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with anxiety and stress. Not convinced? A control group that did not practice meditation saw no such changes, as seen in MRI brain scans taken before and after the study.
However, this is not the only study to find these changes in the brain. A UCLA study suggests that meditation can actually make your brain stronger. By focusing on your breathing, an emotion or a specific thought, you are training your mind not to wander. You know the saying, “If you don’t use it, you lose it?” Staying active in the brain is the same as staying active in the body. By working the brain, you remain healthy and will be able to stay sharper longer, as it helps to prevent white-matter atrophy, which leads to loss of memory and intellectual function.
Finals week leaves you sleep deprived and on the verge of getting sick. Lucky for you, meditation is said to boost the immune system and provide energy, as well as help you sleep a little easier at night. So before you crack open that textbook (which, let’s face it, has been collecting dust since the beginning of the semester when you picked it up from the bookstore), try sitting and concentrating on one thing — be it the sound of your inhales and exhales, a prayer, a thought or your mood at this present moment. To open the mind to the projects, essays and exams that consume finals week, try closing the eyes first.
The link between mind and body is terrain into which many medical researchers, fearing ridicule, dare not tread. But perhaps more should do so. For centuries, doctors have recognised the placebo effect, in which the illusion of treatment, such as pills without an active ingredient, produces real medical benefits. More recently, respectable research has demonstrated that those who frequently experience positive emotions live longer and healthier lives. They have fewer heart attacks, for example, and fewer colds too.
Why this happens, though, is only slowly becoming understood. What is needed is an experiment that points out specific and measurable ways in which such emotions alter an individual’s biology. And a study published in Psychological Science, by Barbara Fredrickson and Bethany Kok at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, does precisely that.
Dr Fredrickson and Dr Kok concentrated their attentions on the vagus nerve. This nerve (illustrated right, in an early anatomical drawing) starts in the brain and runs, via numerous branches, to several thoracic and abdominal organs including the heart. Among its jobs is to send signals telling that organ to slow down during moments of calm and safety.
How effectively the vagus nerve is working can be tracked by monitoring someone’s heart rate as he breathes in and out. Healthy vagal function is reflected in a subtle increase in heart rate while breathing in and a subtle decrease while breathing out. The difference yields an index of vagal tone, and the value of this index is known to be connected with health. Low values are, for example, linked to inflammation and heart attacks.
What particularly interested Dr Fredrickson and Dr Kok was recent work that showed something else about the vagal-tone index: people with high tone are better than those with low at stopping bad feelings getting overblown. They also show more positive emotions in general. This may provide the missing link between emotional well-being and physical health. In particular, the two researchers found, during a preliminary study they carried out in 2010, that the vagal-tone values of those who experience positive emotions over a period of time go up. This left them wondering whether positive emotions and vagal tone drive one another in a virtuous spiral. They therefore conducted an experiment on 65 of the university’s staff, to try to find out.
They measured all of their volunteers’ vagal tones at the beginning of the experiment and at its conclusion nine weeks later. In between, the volunteers were asked to go each evening to a website especially designed for the purpose, and rate their most powerful emotional experiences that day. Dr Fredrickson and Dr Kok asked their volunteers to consider nine positive emotions, such as hope, joy and love, and 11 negative ones, including anger, boredom and disgust. They were asked to rate, on a five-point scale, whether—and how strongly—they had felt each emotion. One point meant “not at all”; five meant “extremely”. In addition, half the participants, chosen at random, were invited to a series of workshops run by a licensed therapist, to learn a meditation technique intended to engender in the meditator a feeling of goodwill towards both himself and others. This group was encouraged to meditate daily, and to report the time they spent doing so.
Dr Fredrickson and Dr Kok discovered that vagal tone increased significantly in people who meditated, and hardly at all in those who did not. Among meditators, those who started the experiment with the highest vagal-tone scores reported the biggest increases in positive emotions. Meditators who started with particularly low scores showed virtually no such boost.
Taken as a whole, these findings suggest high vagal tone makes it easier to generate positive emotions and that this, in turn, drives vagal tone still higher. That is both literally and metaphorically a positive feedback loop. Which is good news for the emotionally positive, but bad for the emotionally negative, for it implies that those who most need a psychosomatic boost are incapable of generating one. A further (as yet unpublished) experiment by Dr Kok suggests, however, that the grumpy need not give up all hope. A simpler procedure than meditation, namely reflecting at night on the day’s social connections, did seem to cause some improvement to their vagal tone. This might allow even those with a negative outlook on life to “bootstrap” their way to a mental state from which they could then advance to the more powerful technique of meditation.
Whether, besides improving general health, the mechanism Dr Fredrickson and Dr Kok have discovered helps explain the placebo effect remains to be investigated. But it might, because part of that effect seems to be the good feeling engendered by the fact of being treated. More generally, doctors in the ancient world had a saying: “a healthy mind in a healthy body”. This sort of work suggests that though this proverb is true, a better one might be, “a healthy mind for a healthy body”.
Exciting new research that will appear in the January edition of the journal, Psychiatry Research, shows that meditation affects the flow of blood to the brain.
Scientists at the Almanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center at the University of California Los Angeles studied the effects of meditation on the “stress” circuits of the brain. Ten experienced meditators performed two types of meditation: a focus-based meditative technique and a breath-based practice. The meditators’ brains were scanned using MRI technology before starting, during the meditation practices, and following meditation.
Researchers found that four regions of the brain were affected during meditation and there were different patterns of blood flow to the brain between the two types of meditation states; however, both techniques improved blood flow to the brain. Some of the brain changes continued even after meditation stopped.
While research in this area is still in its infancy, this positive impact of meditation on blood flow to the brain may have applications in brain disorders or stroke.
While most people associate meditation with religion, this simple and powerful practiced transcends religious beliefs. Meditation is like a short vacation away from the stresses of everyday life to allow you to center your mind and create a peaceful feeling. And, the research is showing that meditation is great for your health.
In one study published in Health Behavior News Service, scientists found that brain scans and blood tests showed positive effects of meditation. In this study of 48 employees at a biotechnology company, half were trained in meditation and practiced it for one hour a day, six days a week using guided meditations that had been prerecorded. The other half of the participants did not meditate. Dr. Richard J. Davidson at the University of Wisconsin found that the meditators had greater electrical activity in their brains than the non-meditators. Some of the effects of meditation continued for up to four months after the participants discontinued their meditative practice.
Other research shows improvements in mood, pain threshold, immune system activity, and bronchial and arterial smooth muscle tone. The studies also show a decrease in stress hormones and a reversal in the effects of chronic stress.
Daily practice offers the greatest benefits. Over time it becomes easier. By meditating on a regular basis you can train your mind to relax and release stress.
There are several ways to meditate: breathing meditation, walking meditation, sitting meditation, mindfulness meditation, guided meditation, and visualization. Choose the type that has the most appeal for you and best fits with your lifestyle and health goals.
Breathing meditation is one of the easiest and most convenient forms of meditation. It can be done anywhere at almost any time, even if you only have several minutes. It requires no special equipment other than your lungs. You can do a breathing meditation while you are waiting in a doctor’s office, grocery store lineup, or at your desk. You can use a regular reminder throughout the day to help you remember to breathe deeply. You could choose to take deep breaths on commercial breaks while watching television or at red lights while you are traveling.
Make time for meditation, even if it is on the bus ride home from work, or while you are sitting in your office, but try to practice it daily. The rewards are far greater than the time and effort it takes to meditate. Soon you will discover that meditation requires little or no effort at all.
Adapted from The 4-Week Ultimate Body Detox Plan by Michelle Schoffro Cook, PhD. Subscribe to my free e-mag World’s Healthiest News to receive monthly health news, tips, recipes and more. Follow me on Twitter @mschoffrocook and Facebook. Copyright Michelle Schoffro Cook, PhD.
This morning, like every morning, I sat cross-legged on a cushion on the floor, rested my hands on my knees, closed my eyes, and did nothing but breathe for 20 minutes.
People say the hardest part about meditating is finding the time to meditate. This makes sense: who these days has time to do nothing? It’s hard to justify.
Meditation brings many benefits: It refreshes us, helps us settle into what’s happening now, makes us wiser and gentler, helps us cope in a world that overloads us with information and communication, and more. But if you’re still looking for a business case to justify spending time meditating, try this one: Meditation makes you more productive.
How? By increasing your capacity to resist distracting urges.
Research shows that an ability to resist urges will improve your relationships, increase your dependability, and raise your performance. If you can resist your urges, you can make better, more thoughtful decisions. You can be more intentional about what you say and how you say it. You can think about the outcome of your actions before following through on them.
Our ability to resist an impulse determines our success in learning a new behavior or changing an old habit. It’s probably the single most important skill for our growth and development.
As it turns out, that’s one of the things meditation teaches us. It’s also one of the hardest to learn.
When I sat down to meditate this morning, relaxing a little more with each out-breath, I was successful in letting all my concerns drift away. My mind was truly empty of everything that had concerned it before I sat. Everything except the flow of my breath. My body felt blissful and I was at peace.
For about four seconds.
Within a breath or two of emptying my mind, thoughts came flooding in — nature abhors a vacuum. I felt an itch on my face and wanted to scratch it. A great title for my next book popped into my head and I wanted to write it down before I forgot it. I thought of at least four phone calls I wanted to make and one difficult conversation I was going to have later that day. I became anxious, knowing I only had a few hours of writing time. What was I doing just sitting here? I wanted to open my eyes and look at how much time was left on my countdown timer. I heard my kids fighting in the other room and wanted to intervene.
Here’s the key though: I wanted to do all those things, but I didn’t do them. Instead, every time I had one of those thoughts, I brought my attention back to my breath.
Sometimes, not following through on something you want to do is a problem, like not writing that proposal you’ve been procrastinating on or not having that difficult conversation you’ve been avoiding.
But other times, the problem is that you do follow through on something you don’t want to do. Like speaking instead of listening or playing politics instead of rising above them.
Meditation teaches us to resist the urge of that counterproductive follow through.
And while I’ve often noted that it’s easier and more reliable to create an environment that supports your goals than it is to depend on willpower, sometimes, we do need to rely on plain, old-fashioned, self-control.
For example, when an employee makes a mistake and you want to yell at him even though you know that it’s better — for him and for the morale of the group — to ask some questions and discuss it gently and rationally. Or when you want to blurt something out in a meeting but know you’d be better off listening. Or when you want to buy or sell a stock based on your emotions when the fundamentals and your research suggest a different action. Or when you want to check email every three minutes instead of focusing on the task at hand.
Meditating daily will strengthen your willpower muscle. Your urges won’t disappear, but you will be better equipped to manage them. And you will have experience that proves to you that the urge is only a suggestion. You are in control.
Does that mean you never follow an urge? Of course not. Urges hold useful information. If you’re hungry, it may be a good indication that you need to eat. But it also may be an indication that you’re bored or struggling with a difficult piece of work. Meditation gives you practice having power over your urges so you can make intentional choices about which to follow and which to let pass.
So how do you do it? If you’re just starting, keep it very simple.
Sit with your back straight enough that your breathing is comfortable — on a chair or a cushion on the floor — and set a timer for however many minutes you want to meditate. Once you start the timer, close your eyes, relax, and don’t move except to breathe, until the timer goes off. Focus on your breath going in and out. Every time you have a thought or an urge, notice it and bring yourself back to your breath.
That’s it. Simple but challenging. Try it — today — for five minutes. And then try it again tomorrow.
This morning, after my meditation, I went to my home office to start writing. A few minutes later, Sophia, my seven-year-old, came in and told me the kitchen was flooded. Apparently Daniel, my five-year-old, filled a glass of water and neglected to turn off the tap. Oops.
In that moment, I wanted to scream at both Daniel and Sophia. But my practice countered that urge. I took a breath.
Then, together, we went into action mode. We got every towel in the house — and a couple of blankets — and mopped it all up, laughing the whole time. When we were done soaking up the water, we talked about what happened. Finally, we all walked together to our downstairs neighbors and took responsibility for the flood, apologized, and asked if we could help them clean up the mess.
After that, I had lost an hour of writing. If I was going to meet my deadline, I needed to be super-productive. So I ate a quick snack and then ignored every distracting urge I had for two hours — no email, no phone calls, no cute Youtube videos — until I finished my piece, which I did with 30 minutes to spare.
Who says meditation is a waste of time?
Republished from Harvard Business Review