Studies have shown that meditation techniques can promote significant changes in brain areas associated with concentration. However, initial experiments involved well-trained meditators. For instance, in his collaboration with the Dalai Lama, Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found much greater activation of powerful gamma waves in the trained meditating monks than in the students during meditation [PDF]. The intense gamma waves signaled higher mental activity, better concentration, learning and memory.
Now, it appears that we can get cognitive benefits associated with mindfulness without spending hours in meditation, although the practice still needs to be consistent. According to a recent study, meditation-trained participants showed a significant improvement in their critical cognitive skills after only four days of training for only 20 minutes each day:
The experiment involved 63 student volunteers, 49 of whom completed the experiment. Participants were randomly assigned in approximately equivalent numbers to one of two groups, one of which received the meditation training while the other group listened for equivalent periods of time to a book (J.R.R. Tolkein's The Hobbit) being read aloud.
Prior to and following the meditation and reading sessions, the participants were subjected to a broad battery of behavioral tests assessing mood, memory, visual attention, attention processing, and vigilance.
Both groups performed equally on all measures at the beginning of the experiment. Both groups also improved following the meditation and reading experiences in measures of mood, but only the group that received the meditation training improved significantly in the cognitive measures. The meditation group scored consistently higher averages than the reading/listening group on all the cognitive tests and as much as ten times better on one challenging test that involved sustaining the ability to focus, while holding other information in mind.
The researchers instructed the participants in this meditation training "to relax, with their eyes closed, and to simply focus on the flow of their breath occurring at the tip of their nose. If a random thought arose, they were told to passively notice and acknowledge the thought and to simply let 'it' go, by bringing the attention back to the sensations of the breath."
While these gains in concentration and other cognitive skills sound amazing after such a brief period of time, it helps to remember that the brain is like a muscle. It needs a regular workout to stay in shape.