NEWS

Just Two Months of Meditation Could Improve Brain Efficiency

Black man wearing orange beanie meditating

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Key Takeaways

  • Meditation is linked to such mental and physical benefits as lessening symptoms of anxiety, depression and insomnia and lowering blood pressure.
  • A new study found that the practice can also improve brain function.
  • After two months of consistent meditation, participants were able to able to reach a focused state more quickly.

Interest in cultivating a meditation practice has surged during the pandemic. According to an app store intelligence report, the top 10 English-language mental wellness apps neared a combined 10 million downloads in April 2020, which is 2 million more than in January 2020. The top three of those apps focus on meditation.

This makes sense, as regular meditation has shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression and insomnia, and can even reduce blood pressure—all common occurrences in a global pandemic. But new research shows there could be a benefit to brain function, as well. A recent study looking at the cognitive benefits of meditation found that just eight weeks of consistent practice can speed up the switch from a wandering mind to a focused one.

The Research

Focusing on a type of meditation best suited for novices, researchers at Binghamton University's Thomas J. Watson College of Engineering and Applied Science found that two months of consistent practice increased the brain’s speed of switching between its two general states of consciousness.

The method used in the study, called focused attention meditation (FAM), commonly serves as a novice meditator’s introduction to the practice. In FAM, participants are instructed to place their full attention on either an external object or internal sensation, such as breathing. Whenever the mind wanders, they're instructed to bring their attention back to the focal point.

George Weinschenk, PhD

Any activity which requires faster responsiveness could benefit... Responding to emergencies or even simply learning to listen to each other in real time as the need arises.

— George Weinschenk, PhD

Study researcher and longtime meditation practitioner George Weinschenk, PhD, taught a meditation class that supplied the sample of the study. Ten participants were instructed to meditate five times per week for at least 10 or 15 minutes and keep a journal during their practice. To monitor brain function, they underwent fMRI scans at the beginning of the study and at the end of the two months.

The end-of-study scans revealed strengthened connections between the two networks in the brain that coincide with focused attention and a wandering mind or daydreaming. After eight weeks of meditation, participants were able to focus more quickly.

“Any activity which requires faster responsiveness could benefit,” Weinschenk says. “I think of piloting a plane, responding to emergencies or even simply learning to listen to each other in real time as the need arises.”

While the study comes with substantial limitations, such as small sample size and lack of control group, past studies have also shown that the potential for altering brain function increases with continued practice of FAM.

Future studies will require more participants and a longer follow-up period to confirm meditation’s effects on functional activity. Weinschenk notes that similar studies are being planned among groups such as elderly adults. Study author Weiying Dai, PhD, whose research revolves around brain function and the impact of disease, plans to continue exploring the ways in which meditation can mitigate the functional issues caused by conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and autism.

Developing a Meditation Practice

Psychologist Lori Ryland, PhD, serves as chief clinical officer at Pinnacle Treatment Centers, where meditation is a common strategy for treating mental illness and addiction. She notes that, with a regular meditation practice, you reap the mental benefits of setting aside time to focus on living in the present moment.

“One will likely discover that when our thoughts and stressors kick into a negative spiral, it is rarely what is happening now that is the problem,” she says. “Most of the time, we are ruminating about mistakes we’ve made in the past, hurts inflicted on us in the past, or worries about what might happen in the future that we may not be able to control. A daily meditation practice improves ability to return to the present moment and improve our response to now.”

Mirroring the uniqueness of every individual, no form of meditation is one-size-fits-all. It takes time to cultivate a practice that works for you.

“The meditation practice you develop will be very personal to you,” Ryland says. “The best way to start is to fit practice into your life in a sustainable manner. If you have an hour to meditate per day, that’s great. If you only have 10 minutes, also great. The point is to establish a practice and stick with it.”

Lori Ryland, PhD

Noticing what is may not always be pleasant. If you are noticing, this means you are doing it correctly.

— Lori Ryland, PhD

Ryland notes that often the most difficult part of meditation is starting a practice. Many people set out with expectations of reaching a state of relaxed bliss, and when the mind wanders, they get frustrated and feel they’re “doing it wrong.”

“If you are mindful of what is happening in your mind and body, you are more likely to observe that you are feeling stress and tension some days or that your mind is racing others,” she says. “Noticing what is may not always be pleasant. If you are noticing, this means you are doing it correctly.”

Consistency and patience are key. Research has shown that it can take weeks or months for a new behavior to become a habit. When your practice becomes habit, the benefits shine through regularly in daily life.

“It is called ‘practice’ for a reason,” Ryland says. “You show up for it and practice even when it’s frustrating and you trust that you are improving. With consistent practice, you will discover that you are improving over time and noticing lasting change.”

What This Means For You

Mediation delivers the most benefit when it’s a consistent habit. Cultivating a practice that’s sustainable doesn’t need to be difficult, it just requires patience and commitment.

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5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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