By now, everyone knows that mindfulness meditation is good for you—but what’s still surprising scientists is just how quickly it works. Ten minutes of meditation won’t make you a better mutlitasker—there’s no such thing, as psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman explains—but it will make you more adept at switching tasks and returning to a deep level of concentration more quickly after a distraction. Every time you practice meditation, you’re strengthening the neural circuitry for focus and training your brain away from mind-wandering. Beyond the need to concentrate for work, pleasure, or to overcome negative emotion, mindfulness meditation can also help to manage disorders like PTSD, anxiety, and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). This last one particularly has shown incredible results, and Goleman cites one exercise a teacher in a rough neighborhood of New York City practices routinely with their class of seven-year-old kids, over half of which have special needs like ADD and autism. That daily ritual keeps the class environment calm and constructive, and is empowering the children with self-control strategies early on. The scientific research evidence on the benefits of meditation is already compelling, and there are major studies underway, which Goleman expects will reveal many more insights that can be used to instruct creative, educational, and mental health practices. Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson are the authors of Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.
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Transcript: What’s surprising, at least to scientists, is that the benefits from meditation show up right from the beginning. You can do, for example, mindfulness—that’s a very popular meditation—if you do mindfulness practice ten minutes a day or ten minutes three times over the course of a day something remarkable happens to your attention, and it has to do with the fact that we’re all multitasking these days. People on average look at their email about 50 times a day, they look at their Facebook 20-something times a day and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s Instagram, there’s your phone calls, there’s whatever it is you have to do. And what this means for attention is that we’re challenged. Focused attention is an endangered species, however, we need that focus to get work done well. So it’s a real problem and meditation, it turns out, even at the beginning, has some of the answers.
It goes like this: when you’re really intensely focused on that one thing you have to do or you want to do—the paper you’re writing or the project you’re working on—then you think, ‘Oh, I better check my email,’ and then that leads to your Facebook and that leads to the phone call, it leads to—we call this multitasking. The brain actually does not do multitasking, it doesn’t do several things at once in parallel, rather it works in serial and it switches very rapidly from one thing to the next. Then when you go back to that project or whatever it was you were so focused on, your concentration had been at a very high level before you started doing the other things, now it’s much lower and it takes a while to ramp up to that same level, unless—and this is so interesting—unless you’ve done that ten minutes of mindfulness; focused on your breath, for example, just watched it in and out, noticed when your mind wandered, brought it back. That’s the basic move in meditation. And if you do that it turns out just ten minutes of practice nullifies that loss of concentration.
Because meditation has been found to work so well with anxiety and depression and possibly PTSD, where that’s being looked into, one of the areas that seems promising is meditation with Attention Deficit Disorder. In a way this is a no-brainer because at base, in essence, every kind of meditation retrains attention and what Attention Deficit Disorder is is a problem with attention. So there’s now a whole host of studies underway, mainly with kids because it’s where ADD tends to show up first, where they’re helping them strengthen the muscle of attention. I was in a classroom of seven year olds in Spanish Harlem, this is a very impoverished area of New York City, and those kids live in housing projects, they have very troubled lives and some of them had ADD—in fact half the kids in that classroom had what are called special needs, ranging from ADD to autism.