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.”
University of Adelaide psychology PhD student Nadja Klafke quizzed 400 men with various types of cancer and found more than 50 per cent used complementary medicines, as well as prayer, meditation, yoga and exercise, in conjunction with conventional treatments.
She said the popularity of complementary and alternative treatments reflected the benefits – real or perceived.
“Many complementary therapies have the potential to help reduce common side effects of cancer treatment and disease symptoms,” Ms Klafke said.
“For example, acupuncture and acupressure may relieve chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting; hypnosis and massage are beneficial for cancer-related pain; and meditation and relaxation techniques can relieve fatigue.”
The study found dietary supplements were the most common natural therapy used by men suffering cancer.
Prayer was identified as the second most popular alternative therapy, while herbs and botanicals ranked third.
Ms Klafke said the study suggested many men were turning to alternative options because they were either dissatisfied with the results from conventional medical treatments or were being pressured by their spouse or family to try something different.
It also found that most oncologists were not aware that their male cancer patients used alternative treatments in conjunction with conventional medicine.
“It would definitely be worth clinicians having an open discussion with their patients about the efficacy and safety of complementary and alternative medicine,” she said.
“A better understanding of the role, reasons for use and the benefits of complementary and alternative medicine may lead to more holistic approaches to care.”
By Tom Heneghan
PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 17, 2009 (Reuters) — Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns boost their brain power through meditation and prayer, but even atheists can enjoy the mental benefits that believers derive from faith, according to a popular neuroscience author.
The key, Andrew Newberg argues in his new book How God Changes Your Brain, lies in the concentrating and calming effects that meditation or intense prayer have inside our heads.
Brain scanners show that intense meditation alters our gray matter, strengthening regions that focus the mind and foster compassion while calming those linked to fear and anger.
Whether the meditator believes in the supernatural or is an atheist repeating a mantra, he says, the outcome can be the same – a growth in the compassion that virtually every religion teaches and a decline in negative feelings and emotions.
“In essence, when you think about the really big questions in life — be they religious, scientific or psychological — your brain is going to grow,” says Newberg, head of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian or a Jew, a Muslim or a Hindu, or an agnostic or an atheist,” he writes in the book written with Mark Robert Waldman, a therapist at the Center.
In his office at the University of Pennsylvania’s hospital, Newberg told Reuters that “neurotheology” – the study of the brain’s role in religious belief – is starting to shed light on what happens in believers’ heads when they contemplate God.
Science and religion are often seen as opposites, to the point where some in each camp openly reject the other, but this medical doctor and professor of radiology, psychology and religious studies sees no reason not to study them together.
“The two most powerful forces in all of human history have been religion and science,” he said. “These are the two things that help us organize our world and understand it. Why not try to bring them together to address each other and ultimately our world in a more effective way?”
Atheists often see scanner images tracking blood flows in brains of meditating monks and nuns lost in prayer as proof that faith is an illusion. Newberg warns against simple conclusions:
“If you see a brain scan of a nun who’s perceiving God’s presence in a room, all it tells you is what was happening in her brain when she perceived God’s presence in a room.
“It may be just the brain doing it, but it may be the brain being the receiver of spiritual phenomena,” said Newberg, whose research shows the short prayers most believers say leave little trace on the brain because they are not as intense as meditation.
“I’m not trying to say religion is bad or it’s not real,” he added. “I say people are religious and let’s try to understand how it affects them.”
NO “GOD SPOT”
Another notion Newberg debunks is the idea there is a single “God spot” in the brain responsible for religious belief: “It’s not like there’s a little spiritual spot that lights up every time somebody thinks of God.”
Instead, religious experiences fire neurons in several different parts of the brain, just like other events do. Locating them does not explain them, but gives pointers to how these phenomena occur and what they might mean.
In their book, Newberg and Waldman sketch out some of the “God circuits” in the brain and their effects, especially if trained through meditation as muscles are through exercise.
Meditation both activates the frontal lobe, which “creates and integrates all of your ideas about God,” and calms down the amygdala, the emotional region that can create images of an authoritative deity and fog our logical thinking.
The parietal-frontal circuit gives us a sense of the space around us and our place in it. Meditation suppresses this sense, giving rise to a serene feeling of unity with God or the world.
“Even 10 to 15 minutes of meditation appear to have significantly positive effects on cognition, relaxation and psychological health,” the authors declare in the book.
Newberg, who grew up in a Reform Jewish family and has studied many religions, said his work might help both believers and atheists understand religious feelings, which he said were “among the most powerful and complex experiences people have.”
But he cautioned against expecting “neurotheology” to come up with surprising insights soon: “As good as our techniques are, they are still incredibly crude. We have a long way to go.”